Trade secrets

Shopfitters turn the dreams of interior designers into reality, says Richard Woolf, but will they be able to perform if pressures from industry continue to increase?

Over the years shopfitters have tried to alter their collective title to descriptors such as interior contractors or spatial specialists. But to no avail. The traditional name has doggedly remained the most popular to describe the specialist contractors who construct interiors.

Their skills are invaluable and uniquely British. Most are steeped in the arts and crafts tradition. Virtually all come from timber and joinery production, a poetic material, as opposed to metal, which tends to bring out the engineer in us.

For designers, a shopfitter’s abilities and insights can make or break a project. When trust and clear communication is established between client, shopfitter and designer, months of uncertainty can turn quickly into a built reality. Teams are assembled, specialists sub-contractors selected, concepts and sketches discussed and clarified. In many cases and at short notice, schemes are value-engineered to suit site conditions, time and cost. All too often shopfitters have to work under difficult constraints. And they rarely understand the importance of their skills. Ask any designer who has worked successfully with a professional team and they will immediately point out the shopfitter’s attention to detail and their effective management of specialist teams, ensuring the job is done quickly and well.

If time management is one of the shopfitter’s strengths, it is also at the heart of the client, designer and contractor dispute. Within any supply chain it is easy to criticise the last stage of the process for delay. I have watched the inexorable drive to make projects quicker and cheaper year-on-year, placing designers and contractors in a no-win situation with clients who believe construction is just a three-dimensional version of graphics, subject to identical production timescales. The reasoning is that if I can get a mailshot produced in ten days, why can’t I have a staircase fabricated next week? The construction industry has seen an increase in regulations, and approval processes have become more onerous, while time to build, let alone think, is down to hours now, rather than days. It’s high-risk work that yields low profits and is set within the old technology industry of construction. Designers are becoming forced into standard solutions for complex problems, acting more as specifiers of building products than creative problem solvers.

The knock-on effect within shopfitting has seen many established companies struggle to sell a quality service within a cut-throat market – and sometimes fail. New companies frequently appear, offering higher speed and cheaper services to clients. Invariably when things go wrong, and the designer begins to unravel the supply network, it transpires that the contractor has merely established a loose collective of tradesmen without the key management and information production back-up essential to complete a successful contract. It’s difficult to convince a client to be cautious when they are offered what appear to be easy solutions to complex problems.

There has been a shift over the years in the perception of interior construction and its performance. For many in the shopfitting front line, there is despair at how de-skilled the process is becoming and how little pride their peers can take in their work. Architects and designers must share in this collective responsibility. Always under pressure to eliminate labour costs from design work by specifying products and materials on simplicity of installation rather than fitness for purpose, it’s no wonder interiors appear to be stuck together and are peeling apart at the edges. I assume this is the speed required by modern capitalism. The relentless need to consume at an even quicker rate, dump the half-used in favour of the new, tie up cash for as short a time as possible and let negotiations on property acquisition drag while lead-in time given to the design and construction teams becomes ever more immediate.

So what is in store for the shopfitter? Change and more change, both in the way work is procured and the industry structure that this produces. Apocryphal evidence currently points to a slow down. The usually quiet early months of the year appear to be continuing. There is a lack of confidence in retail and leisure providers as large names such as Marks & Spencer hit problems, while hoteliers and leisure providers are nervously waiting for an end to the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Projects are being delayed or cancelled at short notice, and some well known shopfitters have had to close their doors.

If there is a positive side, it is that many shopfitters are diversifying into new areas. The continued growth of transport and the plethora of cultural and exhibition-based projects have seen shopfitting skills used to great advantage, the emphasis being on quality, not just time.

We may see companies merging, providing wider integrated skills over national networks. Some may find a continued slowdown, if it materialises, difficult to weather. We will be the poorer for their departure. It is important that the skills and qualities of good shopfitters are not dumbed down, and that designers and clients acknowledge the need to work creatively and professionally with those who ultimately realise their dreams.

Richard Woolf is a director of design group McDaniel Woolf

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