Architects must answer for misery of bad building

OPINION: PARAPHRASING ADAM Smith, George Bernard Shaw once said that, “All professions are conspiracies against the laity”. As…

OPINION: PARAPHRASING ADAM Smith, George Bernard Shaw once said that, “All professions are conspiracies against the laity”. As the inquiry into the Priory Hall fiasco intensifies, it will be interesting to see how many of our professional groups try to pass the buck.

Ducking responsibility reached epidemic proportions not so long ago when it was discovered that housing estates had been built on flood plains. Priory Hall, unfortunately, is probably only the tip of the iceberg; this may lead to a stampede to avoid responsibility in the future.

Frank McDonald recently quoted the director of the Royal Institute of Architects in Ireland (RIAI) claiming that “architects are not involved in the construction stage of buildings . . . where the problems happen”.

Most lay people would be surprised by this assertion. Is it the case that an architect merely passes on his designs to a builder and that is the end of his involvement in the project? Are we to believe that if the building goes on fire or falls down it is solely the fault of the builder who must have deviated in some way from the “perfect” designs he was given?


Strange as it may seem, this describes the present position fairly accurately. For years now, architects have deflected responsibility from themselves by means of a standard contract that they encourage their clients and building contractors to sign. Take the short form contract, SF-88, drawn up mainly by the RIAI. This neatly encapsulates the mindset of the architectural profession. (My request to the RIAI to provide a copy of this contract fell on deaf ears but I managed to acquire a copy elsewhere.)

The contract is between the client (employer) and the builder (contractor). The architect does not feature prominently in the standard version. In fact, his relationship with, and duties to, the client/employer are vague. The architect seems to have maximum wriggle room; this is hardly mere happenstance.

For example: "The architect shall carry out periodic inspections . . . these inspections shall not in any way relieve the contractor of his sole obligation[my emphasis] to carry out the works in accordance with the contract."

This means that the architect has no responsibility to ensure that the works are up to standard. Periodic inspections are almost always done after work has been done, usually too late to make a proper assessment. Quality control is the contractor’s responsibility. This is extraordinary since it allows the builder/contractor to supervise himself.

This is unfair to the client. But it is also unfair to the builder because he is contractually bound to follow all instructions given to him by the architect. Even if these instructions are unsound, the builder has to take responsibility for them, not the architect. This makes no sense.

Under this contract, the client/employer has few rights. The architect becomes, through some mysterious process, the administrator of the contract between the client/employer and the builder/contractor. In essence he is the boss. The architect can issue new instructions without invalidating the contract and he can put a value on any additional works he deems appropriate. This is such a sweeping power that one wonders what purpose the initial contract serves.

The architect can decide when he deems the works to be completed so that they can be taken over by the client/employer for their intended purpose. One would imagine that the client/employer might be consulted about this. But, no, it is a matter requiring only the architect’s “opinion”.

If it happens that the architect and the builder have a long and cosy association then the client could be on a hiding to nothing. In administering the contract, the architect could, if he wishes, always take the builder’s side. He could minimise or overlook mistakes, or look for the cheapest solutions if problems become visible.

If the builder runs over time, the architect can grant him an extension. He can certify stage payments to the builder, thereby accepting and vouching for the quality of the work done. This is surely inconsistent if the architect has no responsibility under the contract for quality control to start with.

There are other weird aspects to this contract: a liquidated damages clause which is more or less unenforceable, the delegation of site safety completely to the builder, and conciliation and arbitration procedures drawn up by – you’ve guessed it – the RIAI.

Notwithstanding the lack of responsibility, architects were able to charge lucrative fees during the Celtic Tiger period. For some jobs, they could charge up to 30 per cent of the total cost of works. There were no downside risks because they were protected by a one-sided contract which should, in the public interest, be scrapped immediately. If retained in anything like its present form, no client should ever sign it.

Where there is little responsibility, standards remain low. It should not be a surprise, therefore, that, apart from its Georgian heritage, Dublin is architecturally a mediocre city, afflicted by urban sprawl and with few modern buildings of visual merit. Architects in the Office of Public Works do good work in restoring historical buildings but architects in the private sector have done little to improve the built environment with any degree of originality. Minimalism is often used as an excuse, where the reality is an abiding fear of any design that makes a statement. At the present time, architects will no doubt try to distance themselves from the recklessness of the property bubble where safety and design standards were not given priority.

The director of the RIAI seemingly accepts that architects should do more. He believes that, from now on, “the design team on each project should carry out inspections during the construction phase and, on completion, to ensure building works have been carried out in line with the original drawings”.

This represents some improvement, but “inspections” are not the answer. Supervision is. Otherwise the builder will continue to supervise himself. If the architectural profession is not prepared to step up to the mark, we should bring back clerks of works or other hands-on professionals to ensure works are carried out properly.

Existing standard contracts need to be fundamentally re-examined, with input from the Competition Authority and consumer representatives. The International Monetary Fund-led troika will also be able to advise on this matter. The efficiency and fee-structures of professional groups in this country have an important bearing on the competitiveness of the country.

Michael Casey is a former chief economist with the Central Bank and board member of the International Monetary Fund