By Architect Don Bunting
As a tribute to the recent loss of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, I will use the title of her song Respect as this month’s theme.
Aretha and her songs came back to me in June while I was travelling through the wilds of Arnhemland in Australia’s Northern Territory.
This is a strange and mysterious place, with life forms hidden among the extensive wetlands, which are interspersed with dry, broken rock escarpments.
The streaky, mineral-rich sandstone has been slowly eaten away over millennia, creating a wildly dramatic landscape. It’s a very spiritual place, with only subtle signs of human habitation.
The only comparable place is Monument Valley in the USA where clusters of vast sandstone buttes rise above the barren valleys.
I once spent the night there, camping with the local Indians, talking with them about their long connection with such an inhospitable landscape.
American Indian and Aborigine still show deep respect for their challenging environments because they once needed to preserve the scarce resources available if they wished to survive.
It is now believed that Aborigines have been surviving successfully and respectfully in Australia for at least 60,000 years. It is not possible to say we show the same feeling for the earth today.
Australian architect Glen Murcutt said buildings should touch the earth lightly, meaning this in both a physical and spiritual sense. He could have simply used the word respect.
Downer New Zealand chief executive Steve Killeen recently said we need to respect our people as an industry and as a community.
This was in a New Zealand Herald article, where he expressed his view on the need to end construction’s boom and bust mentality.
He also said, when describing current approaches to construction contracts, that low margins and contracts that transfer a high level of risk create knife-edge, unsustainable terms.
His answer in contractual terms was to develop more collaborative agreements, but he didn’t say how the industry might achieve this nirvana. Through more respect perhaps.
I remember in my long tenure as Chair of the NZS 3604:2011 Timber-framed buildings Standards committee being regularly criticised by our bureaucratic masters for taking too long deliberating on certain key aspects of the new Standard.
This showed a lack of respect for me and for my hard-working — and unpaid — committee members.
Some eight years on, our hard work has produced a strong and robust approach to light timber design.
I am not aware of this type of effort occurring today, especially with Standards New Zealand having been gobbled up by something inexplicably called the MBIE.
What’s in a name?
Question. Is it possible for the construction industry to respect or relate to a government organisation called the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE)?
The original Department of Building and Housing was “disestablished,” to use the bureaucratic term, in 2012. Since then, to find out anything inside the MBIE web site is like trying to solve a Chinese puzzle.
The industry waits with trepidation for who the next target for “disestablishment” might be.
If I was an organisation operating in the ubiquitously named “Moonshine Road”, I would be more than a little concerned. You know who you are.
Respect is a two-way street. It requires both parties to respect the value and professionalism of the other.
One key relationship in our industry is that between the applicant for approval and those receiving and vetting documents for a building consent.
From direct, personal experience, this relationship clearly lacks any level of respect either way. The word “adversarial” would more accurately describe what takes place.
Sad. Should not happen. The relationship has to be fixed and soon.
Steve Killeen’s earlier words on construction contracts is prescient when considering another key relationship in our industry — that between client and contractor.
If Mr Killeen is right in talking about a high level of risk and knife-edge, unsustainable terms, then something is seriously wrong with our current approach to contractual arrangements.
What has changed since the perhaps more stable era of the 1960s and 70s might offer a clue. There is now far less clarity around who the client to a typical contract is, even where the end user of the building is clear, such as a school building.
Now the instigator, the financier, the ultimate owner and the end user can often be not only different but also unclear at the time a construction contract is signed.
Also, the management team may have allegiance only to the original instigator of a project, while the professional, design input is typically a subcontract, with no direct influence on quality or in determining contractual terms.
This lack of power and influence for design professionals is, or at least should be, of serious concern. Need to save money during the project? Why not change to a cheaper roof?
This is a real example from my sole experience with a project-managed contract in the late 1980s.
My feeling of frustration due to a complete lack of influence over making what was clearly a wrong decision continues to rankle today.
How the industry still achieves such brilliant buildings in so many cases is some sort of miracle. More to the point is how often the result, for one party or other, or for society, is less than stellar.