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Rethinking worldwide


Since Rethinking Construction was launched in 1998, British construction has struggled to keep up with the standards for which it strived. But we are not alone. Initiatives to improve the industry's image, skills and profit margins are springing up worldwide. Emma Forrest looks at other countries' efforts

A ROOM full of construction practitioners and theorists sit nodding in agreement at a conference. The speaker reports that the construction industry in his country has a poor image, is plagued by skills shortages, and concentrates on turnover to the detriment of profit.

This will sound like nothing new to the average Construction News reader. But there is a crucial difference: the speaker is not British. Not all of the delegates are British.

For this is an international event.

Through their attendance of a conference in Manchester, these people have gathered to discuss how to change the state of construction worldwide.

For following on from our home grown Egan report - a successor to the 1994 Latham report - are a raft of worldwide initiatives that aim to take construction by the horns and adapt it as a modern industry. As one of the delegates, head of construction sponsorship at the Department of Trade and Industry Elizabeth Whatmore, said: 'There must have been something in the water in 1998.'

Some have been more successful than others. But rethinking construction is more than a British report: it's a global phenomenon.

Hong Kong Papering over the cracks

LOWEST price construction conducted at breathtaking speed has long been a hallmark of Hong Kong construction. But in 1999 a scandal involving the incorrect use of piles, which revealed that newspaper had been used in the superstructure of public housing, led to an industrywide review.

Construct for Excellence, a report by the Construction Industry Review Committee, released in January 2001, was the result. It tells a familiar tale - the hope of developing an integrated, continually improving industry, with partnering and better value for all its central themes. The result of this debare has been guaranteed maximum price contracting, which most leading clients have adopted.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong Housing Authority has developed a points system that grades a contractor's past performance on matters such as dispute resolution and safety.

Ada Fung, assistant director of housing procurement at the authority, described it as a 'fundamental change in mindset'. She added: 'As clients, consultants and contractors join hands to innovate, solve problems and share the profits of team success, a paradigm shift is at hand.'

The Netherlands Joint responsibility

SPEAKING to Dutch contractors reveals more episodes from an all too familiar tale. A low rate of investment in R&D, unfilled vacancies and complaints about mistakes in design and execution are blighting their industry.

In 1999, trade association BouwNed, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the SBR (Foundation for Building Research) joined forces in a bid to reduce the costs of failures - estimated to be on average between 5 and 10 per cent of turnover - and improve quality.

Four years later, the BouwBeter (Build Better) project is largely industry led. Director Jan Straatman said: 'We wanted to add value for clients and raise the profile of the industry. Construction must become a vital and innovative industry. We must create a culture where responsibility is taken for the end product.'

Mr Straatman said he had come to Manchester to get advice on how to drive the programme forward as it is being set back by the companies involved lacking the financial clout to be able to make a difference on their own.

He said: 'It is a very small programme. It has a small budget in relation to the problems we are facing.'

South Africa Positive discrimination

SOUTH Africa's construction industry faces problems that are depressingly different from those found elsewhere.

Its Construction Industry Development Board aims to monitor economic activity in the sector and the impact of public sector spending, establish a register of projects and a code of conduct for best practice standards - little change there then. But other initiatives include highlighting HIV and AIDS issues to construction workers.

CIDB chair Brian Bruce said South Africa's political history and economic difficulties - unemployment is 35 per cent - put ethics high on construction's agenda.

He said: 'CIDB's objectives are to ensure industry is at total capacity so as to meet the development needs of the whole society. Our hope is that construction spend will make up 9 per cent of GDP at £9.9 billion by 2010.'

Firms must also work on registering the skills of the largely black workforce - skills that have never been officially recognised.

Meanwhile, post-apartheid policies mean publicly procured schemes worth more than £36,500 are awarded on a scale according to price (90 per cent) and black ownership (10 per cent). On deals worth less than this, 20 per cent is awarded on black ownership status.

Australia Tied down in an alliance

WHILE most British firms are still struggling to get their heads round the idea of partnering, others have already decided this is old hat. When the Australian government decided to build the £56 million (A$155 million) National Museum of Australia in 1999 it decided to do so using a model devised in the oil and gas industry: an alliance.

Prompted by an absolute cap on funding, unmoveable deadlines and very high expectations of quality, every member of the construction team was committed to sharing risk and working openly.

Peter Wright, former Lend Lease project manager on the scheme, said: 'Every member of the team was appointed on skills, value and track record, not cost.

Everyone was equal and all decisions had to be unanimous so no-one could sue each other.'

Rather than a defined client and contractor, the project management team reported to an alliance leadership team. There were a lot of long meetings to come to unanimous decisions, and three members of the team had to be asked to leave when it became clear that they were not committed to the alliance's aims.

The finished product opened on time, to budget and visitor figures were 16 per cent greater than predicted.

Singapore From unskilled to IT-savvy

LABOUR intensive construction methods and a heavy reliance on unskilled foreign workers are blighting an industry capable of producing world-class public housing and infrastructure.

A 1998 Government report, Construction 21, made a total of 39 recommendations aiming to increase efficiency, competitiveness and productivity, highlighting the introduction of IT as one of the most crucial elements.

An on-line submission system for building plans was launched in November 2001 and has so far attracted over 1,000 users on 470 projects. It will be mandatory by 2004.

Meanwhile, a set of national building regulations expected to be complete by the end of the year will become part of an electronic information system - a one-stop shop for building codes. Work on a further system that will allow building plans to be submitted in digital form has been hampered by lack of funds - a total of £4.9 million has already been spent - but is expected to be ready next year.