The Devil is in the Detail: A Manufacturer’s Perspective

The UK construction industry is continuing to weather the impact of the coronavirus pandemic but is still facing ongoing challenges when it comes to design detail and the specification process. All too often, information is missing from drawings, leaving decisions to those on the ground, who may invariably take the opportunity to reduce costs by substituting products. This can lead to a loss of design intent and quality. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.

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How then can manufacturers play their part in the specification process and ensure that value engineering is not simply cost cutting at the expense of quality – but rather, a method of ensuring the client gets the best possible value for money with products that improve the functionality and quality of the project? Lisa Sherburne-Kilby, Commercial Operations Director, Masonry UK at Leviat (the home of Ancon and Halfen), investigates.

In her report, ‘Building A Safer Future’, Dame Judith Hackitt said that the term ‘value engineering’ should be driven out of construction, saying that she would be “happy to never hear [it] again”. The term has divided the industry because simply reducing cost at the expense of quality is not value engineering. The process can, in some instances, involve substituting or swapping quality products for cheaper and inferior alternatives that do not meet relevant industry standards because seemingly they appear ‘better value’. In the long term, this can compromise the overall effectiveness of a building and have more serious implications in terms of fire, health and safety. Product substitution should only occur where there is a clear comparison in performance against the required specification.

Transparency and collaboration

In its simplest terms, true value engineering is problem-solving, which is why the relationship between building product manufacturer and specifier has never been more important. At Leviat, one of our core values is customer focus that we express as ‘we put our customer at the heart of it all’; this means we are committed to understanding and achieving their vision. We will review an engineer’s or architect’s principal concepts and advise the suitability of products, highlighting any design concerns early so they do not become costly surprises later in the supply process. A well-engineered and -understood product will add value and not cause a contractor issues during installation or the building owner during its lifecycle.

Whilst being able to provide a range of standard products which specifiers can select to a set performance and criteria is part of what we do, a large part of our work is ‘designed bespoke’ to overcome engineering challenges. In other words, we will take a standard product, adapt it for a project and then ensure it is fit for purpose.

This was the case on a project in Nightingale Place, south London. In order to help the customer avoid the need for additional restraint fixings into the post-tensioned (PT) slab and the use of expansion bolts into high-stress zones, we created a stiffened channel to the underside of our brackets allowing flexibility of the joint position.

In short, all our designs start from the principle of providing an engineered solution that the customer will be confident safely delivers the performance aspirations for the project. Each project is unique in its needs which is why many of our product innovations are driven by our understanding of frequent design demands in complex projects or novel solutions to unusual design challenges and then offering that new product solution to the wider market.

Early engagement

As a manufacturer, the earlier our technical engineers and sales team engage in the specification process, the better, so we can have an understanding of the facts at the front end and be able to identify the areas which are most at risk of costs escalating. To reduce the risk of surprise, we need to align our design with the client’s design in order to allow for flexibility on site. 3D modelling software enables collaboration during the design stage as it gives all parties a view on how products will fit together and if there is likely to be any clashes or interferences.

In an ideal world, collaboration and early engagement amongst all stakeholders on a construction project should become the norm as it will ensure all parties have a deeper understanding of a project resulting in a more accurate specification process and huge benefits to the end outcome. Furthermore, when practiced correctly and at the early stages of a build, value engineering will optimise the value of a project, improving performance and quality.

As a manufacturer of engineered construction technology, we take our responsibilities very seriously. The design and construction of buildings is a joint responsibility across the entire supply chain from architects and designers to contractor, consultants and manufacturers. Organisations such as the CPA (Construction Products Association) are helping to bridge the divide that has existed – following two years of engagement with industry, they have developed a Code for Construction Product Information (CCPI) and are about to undertake a consultation on its new 11-point agenda. This is aiming to set a level playing field for all construction product manufacturers to ensure that the information they provide, in whatever format that might be, is clear, accurate, up to date and unambiguous. This mirrors how we operate and, as such, we welcome this step towards creating a better built environment.

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