Making the earth move

Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

Construction is the missing link between designer and golfer. Routing the course, examining the property in minute detail, both in person and via topographical maps, is the part of golf design that non-architects can most easily comprehend, but, on the overwhelming majority of projects, it is only a small part of the complete process.

Once in a lifetime, a golf architect might be commissioned to design a course on a piece of property so perfectly suited for the game that the clichéd view of design – of 'finding' golf holes in the land – can become a reality. Even in this case, good construction work is vital to the final result. And in every other case, the quality of the build is absolutely central to the quality of the golf course.

On the overwhelming majority of golf course projects, a contractor will be hired to execute the architect's plans.

The ability of the contractor to interpret plans is at the core of the success of the eventual course: if the build is poorly managed, even if the course finally plays as the architect intended, it might have cost so much to create that it will never be able to pay its way.

In well-established golf markets such as the UK and the United States, there are a number of high quality firms that specialise in the construction of new courses and carrying out alterations to existing ones. In such markets, there should be little problem in getting good work done.

But move to emerging golf nations, and the situation changes. "In emerging markets it is a great challenge to get a course built to the right standard," says British golf architect Howard Swan, who should know, given the globetrotting nature of his practice. "We have a project underway in Russia at the moment, and there, our client is building the golf course himself. That means there is good supervision of the project: it's being managed by someone who is very committed to it. But often in emerging markets, you as the architect have to impose some discipline on the contractor, because they really don't know what a golf course is or how it should be built." The same message comes loud and clear from the contractors. In traditional golf markets, the days of booming construction numbers are long gone, and the work that is there is highly competitive. And in emerging markets, there may be more projects, but the complexities of working in countries you don't really know add to the difficulty. "It's exciting to be asked to work in a new country, but it isn't easy," says one. "What about the legal issues of working in those markets, in terms of health and safety, company law, movement of labour and the like? How easy is it to find local firms to whom we can subcontract work like bulk earthmoving?" In emerging markets, local contractors may be cheaper, but they aren't always available. "On jobs we've priced up recently there haven't really been any local contractors," says Sean Keane of Irish firm Fanning Golf. "And often you build a relationship with a design firm, and they are keen to have you work with them in future. We recently built Domaine de la Brie, in France, for example, for Palmer Design, and we'd worked with them at the K Club. It helps to be drawn into a market by people you know." "The best way to ensure a good result is to have a list of reliable contractors and to use shapers who know how you want to work, and who you can trust to get the job done," says Brian Phillips of Niblick Golf Design. "The problem is that in new markets, there simply aren't experienced contractors available." Phillips, who is based in Norway, says that the ideal is a mix of local expertise and specialist golf knowledge. "Contractors do a good job if the specifications to which they're working are properly written. It's important to pick contractors who are looking to build long term relationships, not those who are simply in it for a quick buck. But that's true in any area of business. And in some areas, you need particular skills. In Norway, for example, we invariably have to do blasting work, so you need to have someone who knows how to use explosives. I couldn't do a job in Norway without using local guys." Lack of communication between architect, client and contractor can make for real problems, even when the contractor has great experience. "What makes for a successful build is understanding, commitment, honesty and modesty," says Swan. "A good contractor is someone who knows technically what he is doing, is prepared to commit himself to the task, to listen and to contribute. It's very much a question of teamwork. But there are not all that many of them – in the UK, there are perhaps six contractors we would consider and no more, because we have faith in their ability. When I built golf courses as a contractor, I'm sure the architects preferred to have someone working with them – for their client – who understood what they were doing." Swan explains that, no matter how good the contractor, there is no substitute for the architect, or his representative, being on site for as much of the build as possible. "It's the intensity of architectural supervision that is crucial," he argues. "You can go to a site once a month for a week but you never know what's happening in between. On a course we are currently building in India, we employed a local contractor who didn't know much about golf courses, but was very willing to learn.

And we have had an architect on site for a substantial proportion of the build, so we have had enough direct supervision to ensure a good result. On the other hand, courses we have built elsewhere have turned out less well than they might have, because there was less supervision of the build, and the contractor took decisions while we were off site that were not in sympathy with what we were trying to do." All emphasise that it is not that contractors are necessarily trying to cut corners or shave costs. They want to get the build finished quickly and people and equipment on to the next job as soon as possible, so rework, contrary to some cynics' views, is as much trouble to them as it is to the client. Corner-cutting is most likely to occur when inexperienced contractors get involved: they may underbid in their eagerness to get the job, and then need to find a way to make the price work. "I was speaking to an architect we're working with the other day, and I explained to him that he could cost me a lot of money by changing things after we've built them," says Gordon Milton of British contractor Delta Golf 2000. "But sometimes what they draw doesn't work out on the land. Shapers are expensive, and if you waste a few days shaping something that isn't right it's a big cost. The machines and the technology make it easier to build good courses than ever before. But everyone is trying to cut costs to the bone.

You can still get quality if you've got the money to pay for it." One way in which a number of architects have got round this dilemma is to engage for design and build contracts in which the design firm is also the principal contractor for the build. This doesn't mean they own and operate all the machinery and carry out all the earthworks themselves – although in some cases this may happen – but that subcontractors are chosen by and work for them, not the client.

Design and build is controversial.

Howard Swan, for one, is hostile. "I believe it is a major conflict of interests for a firm of architects also to be contractors," he says. "Architects should have no further involvement in the build than inspecting and supervising the work. If the architect is also the contractor, and he is working for a percentage of the build price, what is his incentive to keep a lid on costs? There is no true recognition of value of architectural work. Suppose a project is budgeted at £2m and an architect is looking for eight per cent of that as his fee. If someone else says 'I will both design and build the course for £2m', there is no value attached to the architectural work." Swan also objects to the idea of architects employing their own shapers, although he recognises the sense in having preferred contractors in this regard. "Employing shapers? Personally I have a problem with that," he says. "It's far cleaner if the client or contractor employs the shaper. If the architect is making a cut from employing the shaper, again there is a conflict of interests. We take a pure route. As a practice we don't even employ a project manager, although we will often recommend, even find one. On the Karnataka Golf Association project in India, we chose the construction supervisor, but he worked for the club. For me that is a better way to work." Brian Phillips says the other downside of a design and build approach is the level of risk such a contract accrues. "It is a huge amount of responsibility for a small firm to take on," he says. "A number of people have gone bust as a result of this type of contract going wrong." But he recognises the advantages. "Without having your guys on site full time, you are probably going to lose that little bump in front of a green that a design and build firm would have spotted and kept. It's those small things that make the difference between a decent course and a really good one." What is uncontroversial is the belief that more detailed supervision by the architect will make a better product and increase the likelihood of the build finishing on time and on budget. "If you can convince the client to have a project manager qualified to make architectural decisions on site full time, it's a huge help," says Phillips, citing the example of DMK director Paul Kimber, who was on site for virtually the whole of the build of the new Castle Course in St Andrews. "It makes things easier if the project manager has a construction background," says Milton. "But I've worked with a PM who came from the building trade in the past, and it wasn't a success.

Working with the land is very different from bricks and mortar!"