60 seconds with Jerry Sullivan

Dialogs and Debates, Organisations — By on November 20, 2011 at 7:31 AM

 Lloyd’s is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Lloyd’s building – one of the most forward-looking architectural feats of its time.

Modern architecture can be challenging – and not just in the aesthetic sense, says Jerry Sullivan, a specialist underwriter of architects and engineers professional liability at Beazley.

Are buildings really getting more daring or has there always been an element of ‘new wave’ architecture?
There have always been cutting edge architects whose designs were often thought of as controversial, going back to Frank Lloyd Wright (born 1867). But people’s idea of what’s controversial really just depends on the times you live in. A big difference for some of today’s daring designs, compared to 50 years ago say, is that they can actually be built at all.
The advances made in material science, especially in lightweight composite materials, means they can do so much more in terms of glass coating technology for example. Some of architect Frank Gehry’s buildings, like the Jay Pritzker band shell in Chicago (opened in 2004) couldn’t have been constructed 50 years ago.
People have always tried to go higher and higher but the sheer scale of buildings today is another example of how far building science has advanced. The 1, 000 metre mark is about to be breached in Saudi Arabia with the Kingdom Tower (designed by Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill) I’m sure someone will eventually be shooting for a mile high building. The technology is there to build it. Whether anyone has the desire right now is another question.

What are your favourite unorthodox or controversial buildings?
I think you see the most radical design in museums of arts and sciences: the Guggenheim in New York is a wonderful building – designed by Frank Lloyd Wright – and the Guggenheim in Bilbao by Frank Gehry is another of my favourites. The Shard, by Renzo Piano, is quite a controversial building for its position in central London and scale – at 310m it will be the tallest building in the EU – but it will be quite stunning when it is finished next year. I also like the so-called Dancing Building in downtown Prague, designed by Vlado Milanic with Frank Gehry.

Have A&E (Architects & Engineers) professional liability risks evolved/grown with the demands of modern architecture? How so?
Risks increase with unorthodox designs simply because they are harder to put together and are more expensive. Contractors sometimes run into technical problems building them, which increases costs to owners, which drives claims. But essentially when unorthodox buildings are hard to put together we see the age old problem – they leak. And when buildings leak, that creates a whole host of issues.
Not only do ‘constructability’ problems arise but traditional HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning) issues often produce professional liability claims: how the glass coating changes the environment in the building, for example, or how the curtain wall design affects the interior.
Another side-effect of advances made in technology is that buildings are often very tight these days and little air comes in naturally. That means HVAC systems have to do their job properly.
So we see some buildings are too leaky and others that are too tight! And in a sense, the types of claims we see haven’t change that much over the years as a result. They are to do with water intrusion and cost overruns for example. But these problems are often amplified in buildings that have a radical design, especially where new materials and technologies are used. That said, we see plenty of claims on buildings that are not radical at all.

But radical architects are still insurable?
When an insurer is underwriting a firm of architects that produces ‘signature’ designs, the underwriters will be familiar with the practice’s portfolio and how well they have performed in the past. We look at how they control their risks as well as what type of buildings they produce and where. There’s a lot to consider including contracts, risk management and staff development, for example. I don’t really need to know precise technical detail about their designs: I’m more interested in the architect’s history and where the practice’s buildings are. If they are building in the US, that’s obviously a concern because it is a more litigious environment.

What’s the liability environment like for Architects & Engineers today?
Architects especially are exposed to the economic downturn because contractors and owners are struggling and they are looking to recoup their costs. So we have seen an increase in claims frequency and claims size on Architects & Engineers coverages partly because of the downturn in the economy. At this point in the recession distressed owners and developers are less willing to settle or walk away from a dispute. Early on in the downturn, claims settled quicker because cash-strapped developers wanted funds. Now they are holding out to get the maximum they can.

Speaking as an occupant, do you think the Lloyd’s building “works”?
I came over from the States 18 months ago and I love working in the Lloyd’s building. I’m on the ground floor and the space is amazing. The open floor plan, and the way people circulate around it, creates so much energy. It is phenomenal.

 

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