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Construction can do better – but it needs help

Tom Fitzpatrick

The construction industry is divided into two groups of people.

On the one hand you have the traditionalists: those who believe this industry just needs to ‘talk itself up’ and are reticent to change or trial modern methods of construction.

But there is an increasing groundswell of support for doing things a better way – and that means taking calculated risks that clients will demand.

I wrote in March 2017 about the fact that the industry was waking up to there being no other choice than to modernise.

Over the intervening 18 months, politicians, industry and the public watched as Grenfell and Carillion exposed the dreadful practices that occurred when industry did things the same old way.

While Brexit continues to override everything else, it is good to see the government is now waking up to its role in provoking change. 

As part of the Budget this time last year, the Treasury said the government would use its purchasing power to drive modern methods of construction across capital projects in areas such as education, transport, defence and health.

It’s understood the sentiment, which amounted to no more than a line, was a relatively late inclusion in the document.

But there are finally signs of progress, a year later. 

In a call for evidence published this week – Proposal for a New Approach to Building – the government seeks industry evidence to inform a “new approach to construction” that will be implemented through next year’s Spending Review.

The review will be led by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, with pilot projects to follow.

It proposes that government departments now use standardised and inter-operable components from suppliers and thus boost what it is calling a platform approach to design for manufacture and assembly. 

Forget about the ‘we mustn’t rely on government to sort out our problems’ brigade. This needs intervention. The construction sector has too much ground to make up.

The industry’s reputation and need to find a new way were central themes to this year’s CN Summit.

While Bam chief executive James Wimpenny was alive to the fact that tier ones needed to adapt, HS2’s Mark Thurston was focused on the client-contractor approach to risk.

Clients like Derwent want their contractors to prove they’re looking after people on site, including sharing incentives for finishing on time and budget.

Quintain hasn’t shifted to offsite construction (yet - see CEO Angus Dodd’s interview with CN online tomorrow) because it sees no clear cost advantage while Heathrow is hoping others will roll in behind its plans to invest in MMC.

Clients are starting to shift the dial and with the biggest single client, government, embarking on a mission to improve the construction process it’s only a matter of time before the traditionalists get left behind.

If you believe the industry can do business better, here’s your chance to help shape its future.

Readers' comments (2)

  • The industry will change. I see evidence that offsite manufacturing is becoming a reality, with some of our clients now ordering their housing stock from offsite manufacturers.
    Process engineering and architecture is something that needs to come together in order to advance further. So too is the relationship between procurement, the traditional tiered approach and process enginineering. My book, when it comes out will cover all of this, together with a look at the psychological approaches to motivation in construction. The key is in the asset and the language we us across the spectrum of construction disciplines. This includes the method or mode of communication, incentivisation across the various levels, the metaphors we use and our attitude to and opportunities for investment is played out across the piste.

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  • "The construction industry is divided into two groups of people."
    No, it really isn't. You insult many people who have been in the industry for 20+ years with this generalisation.

    "I wrote in March 2017 about the fact that the industry was waking up to there being no other choice than to modernise.
    Over the intervening 18 months, politicians, industry and the public watched as Grenfell and Carillion exposed the dreadful practices that occurred when industry did things the same old way."

    Many would argue, and rightly so, that the problems in the industry are about money, money, money!!! Clients forcing prices down, contractors undercutting, focus on cheap rather than quality, government forcing "cost-savings" everywhere and waste, waste and more waste.

    There are a lot of people with over 20+ years experience who have watched in horror over the last 10 years at the lack of quality in projects, the lack of integrity in projects and the continual focus on shareholder returns and huge unjustifiable salaries for executives.

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