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Defective thinking?

24 October 2017

decisive-thinking-image1A national news outlet carried a consumer affairs story online this weekend – it didn’t make the print edition, as far as we can tell – implicitly lambasting a major name housebuilder and the NHBC. The problem was that a new homebuyer had acquired a catalogue of significant defects with their property; the builder had, allegedly, pretty much shrugged and the problem had become the NHBC’s, who then – by its own admission – didn’t cover itself in glory when it came to rectification.

One knows these things happen: there are always rogue builds and, sometimes even, rogue plots. One can’t get into the specifics too much, not least as the report seemed to have unequivocally decided in favour of the homebuyer and there wasn’t much in the way of balance on offer (perhaps a function of the NHBC’s mea culpa at the poor standard of work carried out by its remedials contractor) and no word from the housebuilder.

What was interesting, though, was what was going on BTL (Below the Line, as they say on t’internet. That’ll be the comments section to you and me).

It would not be an exaggeration to say that commentator after commentator – dozens and dozens of them – gave housebuilders and new build in general a huge shoeing: “substandard matchboxes” ran one typical line. The numbers involved put this beyond simple internet trolling and many of them quoted from personal or professional experience, making it harder to dismiss them as the usual ‘green ink’ cranks. The NHBC didn’t fare much better.

It would seem from this that where once bankers, journalists and estate agents (and double-glazing companies) suffered dreadful reputations in the eyes of the public; volume housebuilders have now either taken over as targets for its ire or joined those professions as worthy of equal opprobrium, at least.

One wonders how it came to such a pass, as our experience is of professional organisations striving – in difficult economic and legislative circumstances – to deliver the best they can, within financial reason. And often in the face of some apparently quite obdurate political, perhaps deliberate, misunderstanding of how the housing marketplace works.

Obviously, many of our best customers are housebuilders, and we know too well that they have to walk a difficult, fine line – sometimes a razor’s edge – between achieving (increased) customer satisfaction while delivering quality, affordably and profitably.

It can’t be easy. There are many factors at play: skill shortages, modern procurement methods, an overlong chain between supplier, developer, contractors and then the sub-contractor’s sub-contractor; in-house design and build; a shortage of experienced site manages; the outsourcing of building control and the disappearance of the clerk of works.

So, is there anything to be done? Back BTL, one angry contributor called for a “parliamentary enquiry into tougher regulation of developers and the residential building industry, training, apprenticeships, warranties, builders’ solvency, NHBC, use of materials, construction techniques etc”: plainly unaware that – broadly speaking – we’ve just had such a thing.

In July 2016, the All Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment published a 44-page report called More Homes, Fewer Complaints on the problem of excessive defects, and how to avoid even more occurring if we build more houses each year.

It’s in the area of (continuous) inspection and sign-off where perhaps rapid and immediate progress could be made. If we look back to 2015, there was a survey by the Home Builders Federation and the NHBC revealed that 93% of buyers report problems to their builders, with 35% of these finding eleven or more issues.

This explains much of the ire of the general public venting in the story above, and the question about inspection. With so many seemingly faulty properties finding their way to the market, it is perhaps time to rethink the site management and/ or building control process.

Once, one had a local authority jobsworth – a ‘Blakey’ – who’d turn up unannounced, roll a tennis ball down the drains and, when it didn’t emerge at the other end, tell everyone to do them again. Every trade and every builder lived if not in fear of the CoW; then in troubled anticipation and would be very respectful of their ability to completely muck up the job if they took a dislike to a material/ practice/ person.

Now it is often the site manager who assumes that role on a housing site and frequently has neither the time nor resources to do it properly. And where building control could have an impact, they are now either somewhat after the fact or – if the cynics are to be believed – in thrall to the builder anyway.

Ultimately, More Homes, Fewer Complaints report makes two recommendations around issues of quality and workmanship: that housebuilders should adopt a new quality culture and that the industry should significantly increase skills training programmes. (Putting it back on the builder there, you see).

While one doesn’t doubt a commitment to quality already exists – and one that might stiffen with a drive to a new quality culture - nor that professional trades mostly seek to deliver of their best; one can’t help thinking that it would all be wasted and quality might slip if no-one ever checks, or checks properly.

Re-empower the independent clerk of works, take pressure off – and train more – site managers; involve independent building control earlier and make ‘non-compressible’ time periods between completion and sale, to allow time for effective quality control and snagging; universal and even compulsory.

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