Tenders for Conservation Work

Nigel Hughes


  To achieve consistent quality, the client may wish to specify that certain areas of work are only carried out by named craftsmen. (Photo: Jonathan Taylor)  

In many ways the construction industry is no different to any other manufacturing business. The main contractor, as the manufacturer, co-ordinates and controls a number of suppliers and sub-contractors to produce the goods, or buildings, required by the purchaser or client.

In deciding which supplier or sub-contractor to use, the main contractor will instinctively favour the one that submits the lowest price commensurate with the standards set out in the specification. At the end of the project the client will therefore receive a product created by a number of firms, all of whom have won their own particular contract largely on the grounds that they are cheaper than their competitors. Is cheapness the principal requirement of the client and the industry when considering the care and maintenance of its historic buildings? The client, more than anything, wants certainty: certainty of price, of quality and of timing. In order to achieve this certainty, he needs to have confidence in the providers of the final product. For a project to be successful the client should only appoint a contractor in whom he can be confident: indeed, without confidence there will be no long term relationship.


In a competitive tender it is important that all the work involved in the contract is specified as thoroughly as possible in the contract documents, so that all prospective contractors know exactly what they are tendering for, and the risks of hidden costs arising later is minimised. The quality of the specification is crucial. The starting point for a project will therefore be the appointment of a team of specialist consultants who will be responsible for drawing up these documents, all of whom should have considerable experience of historic buildings work. The client should thoroughly research each of the consultant's credentials and be sure of their ability to work together before engaging them.

If the team is right and sufficient financial resources are available for the level of investigation and analysis required, the specification and contract documents produced will fully reflect and describe the extent of the work, how it is to be executed, to what standard and with what materials. Ideally, the documentation should prohibit subletting of the contract without the specific approval of the client and in some cases, in order to achieve consistent quality, the client may wish to specify that certain areas of work are only carried out by named craftsmen. The specification must be relevant and specific and the use of standardised documents must be treated with suspicion - the rumour that some contractors price contracts according to the weight of the contract documents is probably not without foundation!

Although the aim is to produce perfect contract documents with a thoroughly comprehensive specification, discrepancies do occur. Furthermore, some decisions can only be made on site as work proceeds, particularly where decisions depend on the expertise of a specialist conservator. It is therefore up to each contractor to query any discrepancies during the tender process so that modifications can be made by the relevant consultant and all the others notified, as it is important that all contractors are pricing on the same basis. It is also essential that contractors qualify and explain what allowances and assumptions they have made in preparing their tenders when submitting them.



The selection of the prospective tenderers is of fundamental importance to the success of the project and it is the joint responsibility of the client and his team to be satisfied with the choice of contractors on the list. Personal recommendations, either from the team or from other clients, are invaluable and should always be sought. Visits to previous projects and to the tenderers' premises can be revealing, as can informal discussions with those people who are likely, at all levels, to be involved with the contract. Additionally, members of the team should talk to other members of similar teams on previous projects and investigations should be made as to the credit-worthiness of the contractors through either credit agencies, suppliers or sub-contractors. For conservation work in particular, directors working on the tools, directly employed labour or long standing (rather than self-employed), employees, apprenticeship schemes, a steady turnover over recent years, repeat clients and a familiarity with your type of work are all good indicators. In a competitive tender situation, contractors should be carefully matched so that only firms of similar size and ability are competing with each other. Membership of professional and trade organisations, and indeed inclusion within the Building Conservation Directory itself, whilst indicative of a consultant or contractor being able to carry conservation work, is not conclusive evidence that they are qualified to do so. Membership of such organisations is a useful guide but should not be relied on in isolation when assessing the skills that are needed for your own particular contract.



Upon receipt of tenders, the client should assess them on the basis of four principal criteria: price, quality, timing, and confidence. Their order and relative importance will be dictated by the client according to his particular needs.

Price is the most commonly used yardstick for awarding contracts and if the tenders are equal in all other respects, then it is reasonable that it should be so. However, all too often it is the only criterion to be considered. A low price may well have been structured to take advantage of 'extras', the additional costs that will inevitably arise during the contract. If judging on price alone, the most realistic quotation may be either the one nearest to the average of the prices or that which is nearest to the quantity surveyor's estimate. An employer who indicates that he will not necessarily, or may never, accept the lowest price may in the long run save himself and his team considerable expense and trauma.

After price, quality is normally the most important element of a project, particularly where an historic building is involved. However quality is much more difficult to gauge as both its specification and measurement can be subjective and open to different interpretations. The use of constant supervision by a clerk of works, cross-checking with approved control panels, random testing and ensuring that traditional materials are used throughout can be effective, but quality in conservation work can be difficult both to achieve and to assess. Is a facsimile in new materials of an old feature acceptable aesthetically and if it is, are the new materials compatible with the old ones? Should new work be perfect or should there be the imperfections that exist in the original work? In restoring a modified Georgian house, should one use materials in keeping with its date of construction or with the date of a subsequent modernisation? To all these questions and others, the client and his team must have the answers and have informed the contractor through the tender documents so that he can be aware of the basis on which his tender will be assessed.

Timing is an essential element in any contract and can have a dramatic effect on both quality and price. Time is money for both the client and contractor but in specifying an unrealistic time-scale the client can cause conflict within the construction team and increased costs for all concerned. Old buildings require a considered approach and many trades cannot be rushed, but by the use of critical path and flow chart analyses time can be minimised. Beware though a contractor who promises the earth in seven days, for his will be a contract full of broken promises, of conflict and of disappointment.

The final ingredient of the contract cocktail is confidence: confidence that the price is reasonable for the work involved and will not vary; that the quality achieved will be in accordance with the specification and with the standard expected by all concerned; and that the project will start and finish on agreed dates. If, and only if, the client has confidence in all these factors, should he place the contract.



This article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 1996


NIGEL HUGHES BSc FRICS, is a Chartered Building Surveyor and Associate Director of Grosvenor Investments Limited, London, responsible for the administration of building contracts on the Grosvenor Estate in Belgravia, London SW1.

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