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'I built that' – stories that keep us building big

Zak Garner-Purkis

I’ve found a lot of people in the industry have an “I built that” story.

They follow a familiar narrative. The storyteller explains how, when passing an impressive structure, they remark, offhand, to a friend or family member that they helped build it.

The best versions of these stories feature dropped jaws and cries of amazement from small children or lifelong friends, but they normally have one thing in common: a sense of pride in the job.

You could forgive construction companies for not worrying too much about awe-inspiring projects at the moment, though.

Last week, the trends revealed in our CN100 ranking of the UK’s largest contractors made grim reading. Liberal Democrats leader Sir Vince Cable said he was “hugely worried” by the findings, while VolkerWessels UK chief executive Alan Robertson warned of a “downward spiral of underperformance”.

The list arrived in the aftermath of another bad news day for construction – just a few days earlier, the completion date for Crossrail had been pushed back by a year. 

The reasons given by leaders for the line’s delay, revealed last week, ran along the same lines as other major, late schemes, with bosses citing “complexities” and “inefficiencies”.

Flagship projects – the type that engender the best “I built that” stories – are often risky and expensive.

Even before the CN100 dropped, chief executives across the industry had been full of anti-risk rhetoric about ‘saying no to work’ and ‘walking away from bids’. Such statements might be well received by shareholders and investors, but these strategies can lead to a company becoming flush with projects that are hardly going be the most inspiring to future generations.

Few people get into the industry with the desire to deliver as many standardised £2m school projects as possible. And there aren’t many employees who will want to tell their grandchildren about the council office fit-outs they completed.

No disrespect to council office fit-out outs or low-value school projects, but they’re not exactly the type of job that workers fight to have on their CVs.

That said, if big, fancy projects don’t make money, you can’t really argue that contractors should be obliged to bid for them.

The answer might just be to find a better model for building these schemes, trying new ways of sharing liabilities or working with subcontractors. 

One type of flagship development that has no trouble attracting bidders are tall buildings. On Thursday, Construction News will examine demand in the London market for these skyscrapers. But you only need to look at the names of those who were in the running for the Mitsubishi Tower to see how enthused developers and contractors are in this space. 

And hopefully, these skyscrapers can inspire the next generation, because, in the midst of a skills crisis, inspiring “I built that” stories are essential for the industry’s future prospects.

Readers' comments (1)

  • its simply, do these larger flagship projects under the collaboration model, don't continue to force EFW, and Aberdeen bypass projects under lowest cost win bids, the larger companies are now telling customers they aren't prepared to do them anymore, how many of the big 10 contractors haven't been hurt on EFW, BB and GT sharing 250-300M loses on that scheme is unbelievable, time to wake up and smell the coffee, then maybe we all will be able to say I built that because it made money and built to good quality.


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