Comparing French and British Construction: French Fancy

I am a regular at Mipim in Cannes, but this year I branched out beyond the narrow strip of land on the Côte d’Azur. I spent the weekend before in Grenoble with BDP’s French partner practice, Groupe 6. BDP held a conference on hospital design – Groupe 6’s speciality and increasingly one of BDP’s too. Their whole approach to healthcare design is different, with potential to improve UK thinking.

We met in Groupe 6’s 1994 Museum of Grenoble, in Jean Prouvé’s Alpexpo building of 1968 and in a 17th century chateau, savouring differences that stretched well beyond the British and French healthcare buildings that were our focus.

The principal difference between France and the UK is the cost of building. It is an inescapable fact that costs are far lower in France than here. Despite the fact that wages and additional employment costs are far higher than the UK, all types of buildings are normally from half to two-thirds of the cost. It is enough to make the Rethinking Construction brigade weep since this is well below its most ambitious targets for reform. There is no doubt though that these buildings look far cheaper too. In a nutshell, French buildings are often bold in shape and colour, but can lack the quality of detailing which is one of the strengths of the British profession. They are also made of lower-grade materials by UK standards.

These fundamental differences stem from how our respective industries work. To generalise, the UK architect largely controls the details and specification of the design reasoning that standardised products can be shunned since their bespoke counterparts are not dearer. The result is that contractors manage their purchasing on a job-by-job basis in a one-off business culture that fails to generate economies of scale. The French architect earns a generous fee for scheme design but loses control to the contractor at our stage E. The contractor then specifies standard products and details, buying forward in bulk for many different projects. As standard products are well used, they are much cheaper than bespoke ones in France. The final appearance of buildings in France is often basic as less thought is given to lifetime costs, while in the UK we are witnessing a gradual increase in specification quality as the ethos of whole-life costs begins to grip and clients realise the need for quality materials to build to last.

So we envy the French architects their conceptual freedom and fees and they envy us our materials and our ability to control detail and quality.

The evolving UK industry is looking for the best of both worlds. By collaborating with main and specialist contractors in a long-running supply chain, UK architects can retain their control of detail but develop standard solutions with buying economies. Fewer variations of parts are needed than are routinely called for. Similarly, our work on lifetime costs could make these buildings better value than their French equivalent.

It’s a gap far wider than the Channel at present, but well worth tunnelling through.

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