Rules of the game

The construction programme behind the London Olympics involved 120 projects…. and only one dispute that didn’t even make it to court. Melanie Mingas catches up with the author of the contract behind the games, Martin Barnes, and asks the industry if NEC3 could help Qatar

The London Olympics wowed the world last month. But while millions focussed on counting medals, the construction industry may be interested to count the number of disputes that went to court over the course of the game’s 120-project construction programme.


It’s a far cry from the fiasco that marred London’s Wembley Stadium project between 2000 and 2006.

Everything that could go wrong did – including the foundations being filled with the wrong strength of concrete – leading to almost every project partner raising a dispute and Multiplex admitting losses of up to £70m.

But the problems could have been avoided.

In 1993, Martin Barnes published his ‘New Engineering Contract’, known to UK construction companies as NEC. Now in its third edition, the contract is mandated for nearly all publicly funded building and civil engineering projects in the country, including those for London 2012 and the majority of projects for BAA Airports Limited.

Since its introduction more than 20 years ago, NEC has been applied to projects in most English speaking countries, and has even been used in the Middle East. But only now are industry lawyers and commentators proposing its use during Qatar’s World Cup construction programme.

“We proved with the London Olympics that NEC works when you are doing a large sports programme, which has a large number of contractors and must be done without delays and cost over runs,” advises contract author, Martin Barnes.

“There have to be relationships whereby, when unexpected problems turn up, you can work out the best solution and how it will be achieved,” Barnes adds.

Written by the industry, rather than lawyers, the contract preserves the relationship between the buyer and seller of construction services, with the aim of keeping disputes out of court, largely via the ‘early warning system’, with other provisions to preserve contractor profits.

The idea came following Barnes’ work for a project management business in the UK, when he came to realise that as soon as the planning and design phases were completed and contracts were signed with the main contractor, the control over the project was transferred and could no longer be guaranteed.

“I designed and wrote the NEC to be a contract between a buyer and seller which enabled both to manage their contribution properly,” he says, explaining that only two minor amendments have been made since. The first following the UK Government’s Latham Report in 1994 on the management of construction projects, and the subsequent following lessons learnt from application of the contract.

“It’s all about management and getting a good result for both the buyer and seller. NEC places a lot of emphasis on planning ahead and reacting effectively to the unexpected. There is a very simple device called ‘early warning’, which helps everybody to minimise the impact of unexpected problems,” Barnes continues.

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