How the Clerk of Works can ensure that delivery matches design
A Clerk of Works checks standards of workmanship and materials, and makes sure that the design specifications of a project are actually followed. Once a commonplace figure on sites, the Clerk of Works is increasingly rare in construction projects today. There is a good argument to be made that many of the shortcomings of quality control in today’s industry can be traced to the sidelining of this valuable part of the process.
The role has endured since the Middle Ages but came under siege in the 1990s as management trends appeared to conspire against it: the rise of design and build and value engineering gave far more discretion to contractors; local authorities, most of which would have employed their own Clerks of Works, began outsourcing professional services; and the increasing employment of project managers arguably privileged the supply chain rather than the construction process.
A generation of seasoned Clerks of Works coming up to retirement age were simply not replaced, recalls Jerry Shoolbred, a Clerk of Works who for the last 14 years has acted as superintendent of construction works at Anglia Ruskin University.
Shoolbred's role there makes perfect practical sense. He looks after the client’s interests as an operator and long-term landlord on a steady stream of development projects across four campuses. Working with architects and contractors, he makes sure that detailed designs meet the university’s extensive dossier of client requirements.
While a Clerk of Works is not empowered to issue instructions on site (unless formally acting in a supervisory role under a NEC contract), he can challenge contractors about why they have made changes and ask them to defend their decisions, and will report back to the client if not satisfied.
On site he will be on the lookout for any poor workmanship or defects in building works that could lead to time and cost problems further down the line. Any issues will be flagged up immediately rather than being compiled near to the end of a project.
Shoolbred sympathises with architects who complain that their designs do not survive the design-and- build process, particularly when they are instructed to put a package of work together for tender without novation to the contractor.
‘Architects are not given the time. Squeezed fees mean that they have to hand control to contractors. Very often their involvement on site is limited to site meetings with little opportunity to do real site inspections,’ he points out.
There is something of a void that the Clerk of Works used to fill. Firms offering Clerk of Works services are often faced with clients who ask questions such as: ‘Shouldn’t the architect be looking after that?’ or ‘Shouldn’t the building control officer be responsible?’.
Shoolbred would answer by pointing out that proper site inspections by the architect can only take place when they are being paid to provide the service; while building control officers will sign off construction stages from a safety point of view, but are not there to police the quality of workmanship or detailing.
He would like to see architectural practices giving more time on site to young architects, so they can see how their digital designs actually translate, and how workers deal with them in practice. This lack of practical site experience is apparent among consultants and construction managers alike, he believes, and is a consequence of today’s more academic approach to training.
At Anglia Ruskin, Shoolbred is able to sit down with consultant architects at an early design stage and advise on whether proposals match what the university favours – it has written up a detailed list of client requirements over the years for such issues as building functionality, IT and security – but he admits that this process is rare today.
He does see signs that the pendulum is swinging back towards a concern for quality. Job advertisements calling for quality control officers, or similar roles, are increasingly being placed by commercial developers and some contracting groups. Even so, these will be for stage inspections, rather than the full-time Clerk of Works role on site.
The 2018 edition of the Clerk of Works and Site Inspector Handbook has recently been published. The bible for practical site inspections, it explains what a Clerk of Works looks for on site and provides advice that any architect can arm themselves with. It describes the traditional site inspector role in detail, as well as how the duties and responsibilities of a Clerk of Works relate to contemporary construction projects.
Thanks to Jerry Shoolbred, Clerk of Works, Anglia Ruskin University.
Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas
RIBA Core Curriculum Topic: Design, construction and technology.
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Posted on 8 November 2018.