The cheaper the better


And yet that apparent dream world was once common practice for any major construction contract. What happened? The 1980s happened.
If ever there was an era known for bad fashion and bad design/building practices it was the 1980s. Style over substance and a liking for wide shoulder pads applied to fashion and building design. In the case of 1980s buildings, the “shoulder pads” were more a predilection for adding bits of irrelevant post-modern flash and dash to the building’s facade and parapets.

Our industry has now been left with some very bad habits, of which a liking for “cheapest is best” is arguably the worst. There has already been much said about the leaky buildings issue, but cause and effect were inevitable when a desire for smooth, flat facades was answered by installing cheap, inadequate materials by inadequately trained and supervised workers.
I wouldn’t insult the many good practitioners in our industry by calling those involved tradespeople.

With the greatest sympathy for those suffering from the downside of an era of bad building practice, the “other client” in all this is also suffering. By other client I mean the public.
Take a stroll down Auckland’s upper Hobson Street, or Beach Road — or similar urban areas in other cities — and you will see what I mean.
Auckland’s streetscape and many of its public areas have been permanently, visually blighted by the erection of some really badly designed and shoddily built buildings.

The public effects of accepting cost before quality is more subtle and even more intrusive than that. Cheap, badly laid paving, grotty, badly finished interior and exterior surfaces, cheap fixtures and fittings all affect our enjoyment of public buildings and public spaces.
There is a new brand of golf club on the market advertising itself as “the most expensive and the very best club you can buy”. This Louis Vuitton-type marketing approach, where a company unashamedly presents itself as elitist, has been very successful.

The golf club brand in question is now outselling even more famous brands promoted by leading professional golfers. The secret was in making the product just a bit more expensive, but still well within reach, of a critical mass of golfers.
You may not be able to afford a Ferrari but you can afford a golf club brand only 10% more expensive than others.

Perhaps there is an answer here for our much maligned industry. We have been our own worst enemy, allowing cheapness to come before quality. I could surmise why this happened and how it might be overturned, but I am not confident that my profession and my industry has the will to say no to cheap and nasty, and yes to minimum levels of building quality.
I am not talking about our Building Code, which is rightly focused on minimum standards of health and safety. There were attempts to implement the concept of amenity but this is very difficult to define in a technical sense.

Sadly, my profession, other design professionals and their clients cannot seem to accept that codes set minimum standards. A building code has a much narrower focus than the broader considerations needing to be applied to our built environment.
The urban design task force is one attempt to raise design standards in Auckland’s central city. While having its successes, current economic conditions have been more successful in preventing some recently ill-considered projects from proceeding than any well-meaning expert panel.

The panel do not have the ability to determine whether a really good design has been a convenient vehicle for some cheap and shoddy material choices.
Change will only come in our industry when a more inclusive way of realising building projects becomes the norm. Whether a design/build approach or a conventional tender route is chosen, standards will only be raised if the word “quality” always ranks alongside the word “cost”.