Expert Commentary

Getting a Grip on Quality in the Constructed Project: Defining Quality

Quality, as both a word and a concept, is of no small significance for the construction industry. Unfortunately, this is manifesting itself and gaining critical attention, primarily through its absence.


Construction Quality
October 2009

The impact of defects, from both a claims-made perspective and the rising cost of general liability and completed operations insurance coverage, demonstrates that quality can be a critical determinant of project and organizational success.

This article, the first in a series addressing issues in construction quality, will examine the concept and explore some definitions. Later articles will review some essential elements of quality, introduce some critical procedures related to making quality matter, and explain how to obtain the results needed to increase the cost effectiveness of construction.

What Is Quality?

Quality: 1. a: a peculiar and essential character, b: an inherent feature; 2. a: degree of excellence, b: superiority in kind;… 4. a: a distinguishing attribute.

Source: Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

It is interesting to note that even from the perspective of the dictionary, quality has a variety of definitions, all of which relate to each other but which differ to some greater or lesser degree. This range of views also maps to the real world, where projects struggle to balance expectations and results, and seek to settle on an appropriate balance of often competing interests with respect to whether a delivered product or service is sufficient to satisfy the client's quality standards.

The problem for construction is that in any project, the definition of quality can be a moving target. "Normal and customary" is the term routinely incorporated into contract language, with regard to the expectations of craftsmanship in installation. This means that the standard of outcome will vary in accordance with many factors. As a result, an extraordinary effort must be made to specifically define all aspects of the standards for construction in the contract, before the actual construction process begins. Otherwise, subjective evaluations will prevail after the conclusion of a project.

Since the terms defining quality are abstract and subject to wide variation, depending on the point of view of the receiver, it is difficult to pin down in sufficient detail to make it possible to achieve satisfactory results. After the delivery of service or a product, which is when the quality of an installation is actually gauged and measured by the receiver, this becomes a still larger challenge.

What one party perceives to be "normal and customary" depends on many factors, making it difficult to achieve success, even before a project begins. This task becomes impossible once they decide that it was not achieved. Now, this subjectivity can redact to the benefit of the contractor delivery system, but only if the contractor is incredibly lucky (and who can trust luck as a strategy?) or if they are able to go well beyond the expectations of their client. Since neither of these methods can be anticipated with any high degree of certainty, to deliver the desired result, a more intelligent approach is essential. When standards defining quality are left vague, ill-defined, or unclear, it is impossible to be in compliance, either as-you-go or upon completion.

The challenge is that, since for most people, quality is one of those things which is primarily noted in its absence, there has not been extensive thought applied to this aspect of a project. Once the service is delivered, or the product is delivered, the client decides whether it satisfies or if it functions as intended for its stated purpose. Thus, quality must be in contemporaneous compliance, created as the project is being delivered, since it cannot be back-fitted onto the facility after it is completed.

Pre-Project Quality Definitions

The objective of this article is to provide some direction for more comprehensive quality-related considerations in pre-project definitions of quality standards. To craft a more coherent approach, quality needs to be defined in a more comprehensive manner. The standards for describing in a clearly defined and objectively measured manner must be stipulated in the contract documents, such as drawings, specifications, and other documents. When this is achieved, all parties involved in the process have a common basis on which to evaluate, as they go, whether the contractors are delivering on their commitments to provide quality within the expected parameters. A failure to accomplish this, or to even check what the existing standards are before beginning a project, spring loads the project for failure from the perspective of quality.

The starting point must begin with understanding some basic concepts which relate to the delivery of quality. First, it needs to be understood that quality always has an inherent dynamic, responsive aspect to it. This creates a challenging paradox. While the definition of quality is fixed for each project, for the construction industry as a whole, and in comparing one project to another, quality is a very fluid and changing standard of care. This is due to evolving standard of care which drives a rise in the expectations of clients.

An easily understood illustration of this dynamic is the migration of cash machines. When they first appeared, they were to be found only inside lobbies of bank buildings. Over time, consumers came to realize that the machines could be in other places and began to demand that someone provide them, making it more convenient for them to access and obtain cash in a more convenient manner. Now, cash machines are so ubiquitous that they can be found nearly every location where the use of cash is a routine occurrence. Rising expectations, which flow from market dynamics and innovation in both processes and technologies, continue to expand under the relentless pressure of consumers and businesses for better, faster, cheaper, and more convenient ATMs.

Particularly in construction, quality is not judged in a sense of either one standard of care for a service and another for a product. In construction, quality is measured against standards for both. While the final outcome of construction is some facility (a product) intended to support some client operation, the process of constructing that facility (a service), which takes place over time, also matters. It is often misunderstood that how the process of construction occurs and how it is perceived (e.g., as being responsive, purposeful, and effective—sufficient for service) can influence not just the customer's judgment of service quality but also perceptions of product quality.

Three Dimensions of Quality

Regardless of whether we're discussing a product or service, quality must be seen as having three dimensions in the "space" in which it resides. These three dimensions help to translate the ephemeral nature of quality into something tangible.

A Dimension of Time

The first dimension is to understand that there is a critical time component associated with quality. While measurement of quality comes after the fact, meaning that the service or product is received, evaluated, and then judged, the concept of quality a service (about which something can be done to affect the outcome) always resides in the future. Quality is related in some way, to the expectations of the client, as to what they will receive at some future point in time. As a result, quality is the outcome of some process.

As with all other aspects in life, when a goal in the future is desired, a structured process is necessary to deal with the dynamic nature of getting from here to there. This creates a paradox. Quality is tied to the application of foresight in preparing for a desired future, but is only judged through hindsight by looking at actual results delivered.

A Dimension of Place

The second dimension of quality is that it is a local phenomenon. By this, it means that the context in which either the service or product is delivered has a major impact on how that is measured and judged. What may constitute high quality in one situation is not likely to be the equivalent of it as determined in a completely different setting in another location. Thus, regional influences, local construction markets (for labor, material, equipment, and other inputs), building codes, market conditions, and a wide array of other components can influence judgments about quality.

As a result, to satisfy the ability to respond to all of the local inputs, those in control of the construction process must be attuned to the environment in which a project is being built, with the ability to evaluate and respond to those influences.

A Dimension of Specificity

The third dimension of quality is that it is particular. This means that is it tied to the content of the project or the specific element being evaluated. Quality standards are, and should be, different from component to component, and the intended function of the facility will also influence how things are viewed. Thus, what one would see as high quality in one situation may be judged as insufficient to satisfy needs or requirements with a different situation. This aspect shows that the specifics of each component matter.

Together, these three dimensions tie back to the common contract language of defining quality standard by the term of "normal and customary." This demonstrates how the law, while being subjective, does respond to the requirements of a changing world, without constantly changing terminology. Thus, for each project, there is a different standard, from every other project, for how quality will be measured. This measurement comes through the judgment of the client, who is funding and receiving the project. Therefore, it is incumbent on both the owner funding a project, and a contractor building it, to reach an objective definition of client expectations, in advance, so that subjective evaluations after the fact do not prevail in judgment.

Disparate Views of What Constitutes Quality

The primary source of dissatisfaction, with respect to quality, occurs when there is a gap between the understanding of what the client expects to get, and what the contractor delivering the project believes they have to do. If the gap between the two understandings is large enough, the result can be an escalating spiral of acrimony, resulting in claims, disputes, and eventual litigation. Once this path is entered, no one involved will benefit, regardless of the conclusion.

The same scenario can occur even when there is no gap in the understanding, but the gap is between what was to be done and was actually was done. In this case, the outcome, for all parties involved in the process, is not just failure with that particular project, but cascading impacts, which flow far beyond the boundaries of any particular project. This path is started through either an outright failure to deliver to the standards defined in advance or through the revelation of some unintentional construction defect.

Either way, once this "damage event" has occurred, there is no going back. In both of the situations of failure to achieve quality in the result, if it terminates in litigation, the outcome becomes an expensive proposition for everyone involved. Despite protestations to the contrary, only the attorneys and experts win in litigation. Once the point of litigation has been reached, it is too late to mitigate the damages, and there is little likelihood of recovery, as positions harden into adversarial perspectives. The process will run until one side has reached the limits of its endurance or money, whichever comes first.

Conclusion

The only reliable method to prevent construction litigation over quality is to avoid the damage in the first place. Avoidance of damage means delivery of quality results in line with expectations. For this to occur, the standards by which both construction services and the completed project will be judged must be defined in a sufficiently clear, specific, and achievable manner. The path to this result is to address all the aspects of quality as described in this article.


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