Specialist says innovation stifled by lack of contractor cooperation

The failure to ensure specialists are consulted early in the construction process is holding back innovation, an envelope contractor’s CEO has said.

Clarison Group chief executive Mark Oliver told Construction News that if main contractors appointed specialists earlier in the process, their early input could improve the sustainability of projects and resolve design issues before work begins.

“By the time the specialist comes on board, the thing has been half-designed, but doesn’t work because they haven’t involved people in the job who know the specifics,” he said.

Oliver added that subcontractors may be expected to give away ideas for free early on in a project and risk the main contractor still “shopp[ing] around on the price” – something that Clarison has fallen foul of. “We have had our fingers burnt a few times,” he said.

On one occasion, the company spent nearly a year working on a build-to-rent project, for which it established that the onsite facade methodology was “unworkable and couldn’t be achieved”.

According to Oliver, the firm showed the main contractor how the strategy was not compatible with the design and how an offsite solution was the “only approach that would deliver the project”. But a different specialist was appointed to deliver the work, even though it was not the one to develop the solution.

“This was another project where, after re-engineering to save the customer money, we didn’t win the job, but the contractor reaped the benefits,” he added.

Such approaches stifle innovation, according to Oliver. “All you end up doing is making decisions based on price with no innovation,” he said.

The unpredictable nature of the sector and the lack of repeat business also means long-term relationships between main contractors and subcontractors do not often develop, so trust is missing between the various sections of the supply chain.

Only companies such as Laing O’Rourke and JRL Group have bypassed what he called “vertical market failure”, as they have bought specialist subcontracting businesses, meaning they can get access to innovation early on, he said.

Clarison launched in February 2021 following the merger of four facade and architectural glazing companies based in the UK and Ireland. It tabled a pre-tax profit of £1.3m in its most recent annual accounts, for the year to 31 December 2020, and a turnover of £75.5m. But Oliver expects turnover to drop by about a fifth in 2021.

Since its founding, the company has emphasised a focus on sustainability. Oliver called for the procurement process to require a carbon cost in financial terms to be factored into a bid.

“[This would] require construction projects to have a carbon budget, meaning they would take the cost of carbon into account when making their procurement decisions,” he said.

Oliver added that while most businesses claim to be making efforts to improve sustainability, the cheapest bids are still usually the ones that are accepted. Pricing-in carbon would force developers and main contractors to take into account the full impact of the building’s lifecycle, he argued.

“Until developers have to worry about a price for carbon, they are just going to care about the capital cost,” Oliver said. “But if you put some carbon equation into the capital cost, then they are going to have to consider sustainability from the get-go.”

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