The future is unbuilt

For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, the fortunes of the construction industry and UK economy appear wedded together.

In 2008, when the UK economy went down as a whole, construction fell faster and further, but bounced back stronger, in 2009. Creating outputs of £83 billion on the road to recovery in 2012, the sector swelled to provide one in every fifteen jobs at the end of last year.

For growth to be sustainable, however, it is not enough simply that order books become fuller and business more profitable – the sector needs to change.

Unfortunately, change does not suit everyone. Retreating to the comfort zone of “business as usual”, pursuing safe bets and fast bucks is slamming the engine of transformation into reverse. Chairman of Buildoffsite Richard Ogden can already see warning signs in rising material prices and labour rates.

“There is little evidence that growth is being driven by increased productivity,” he says. “An absence means inflation and a risk to jobs and aspirations. The key is innovation in product and process.”

Enabled by modern manufacturing, digital technology and smart logistics, the systemic innovation Mr Ogden envisions takes place in a global marketplace, where countries and firms compete to produce what is essentially a consumer product.

It is not enough simply that order books become fuller and business more profitable – the sector needs to change

“I make no apologies for regarding the construction industry as just another manufacturing sector. I want choice in terms of size, specification and performance – in short, I want to be able to customise my purchase,” he says. “I want rapid delivery and assembly on-site, right-first-time quality, performance in use that matches the marketing. That is what I expect when I buy a new car and I can’t see why construction should be any different.”

While not buying into the automative analogy, Shaun McCarthy, chairman of the Supply Chain Sustainability School, a collaboration between 17 major contractors to develop competence of more than 5,000 sub-contractors, still sees lessons to be learnt from manufacturing, particularly around benefits of integrated modelling.

“The BIM [building information modelling] revolution is coming. It can be transformational. However, it requires completely different skillsets from management and staff,” he says.

The revolution will be cultural, not technical. Out go old adversarial attitudes and in come new collaborative ways of working. Citing “intelligent client” roles driving megaprojects, such as Crossrail and the Olympic Park, Mr McCarthy argues that, without such a gearshift, technological potential may be wasted.

“We are seeing flat-pack houses in Sweden, homes created using 3D-printing in China, concrete that absorbs carbon, the list goes on. Without culture change these innovations could wither on the vine,” he says.

Change will depend, of course, not on a matter of either technology or people, but both together. Head of facilities management and Plan A at Marks & Spencer Munish Datta explains: “I think the government’s Industrial Strategy: Construction 2025 summarises transformative factors rather well: ‘An industry that attracts and retains a diverse group of multi-talented people’ and ‘leads the world in research and innovation, transformed by digital design’. One cannot be achieved without the other – technical innovation requires cultural change and vice versa.”

What Whitehall strategy might promise on paper is not, however, being delivered with urgency or certainty by Parliament in practice, according to John Alker, director of policy and communications at the UK Green Building Council.

“The main thing that risks slowing the rate of change is the state of government policy – to date, the main driver. Absolutely critical policies are still in a state of flux, notably regulations for minimum performance in existing stock and, despite the Queen’s Speech, details of ‘zero carbon’ for new build,” he says.

For construction, Mr Alker argues, taking the future of the sustainable business model into its own hands is starting to look like more than just a desirable option; it is becoming essential.

“We have to make the business case for sustainability in its own right. That means taking into account ‘whole-life’ value, not just reduced resource and utility costs, but also the benefit to people in terms of health and productivity. This is the hottest topic in sustainable construction right now,” he says.

Construction can yet rewrite its own playbook and Mr Datta at M&S sees grounds for optimism.

“I have high hopes the industry can learn from the not-so-distant past and define a new type of growth borne out of a very different near-future landscape – climate resistant, frugal with resources, smart, circular, diverse, global and ultra-efficient,” he says.

The question is who will step up to the plate?

“The industry needs transformational players,” concludes Mr McCarthy. “In the 1960s, the Japanese changed the way we thought about cars; Microsoft made computers accessible to all; Apple changed mobile technology; Tesla is about to transform the car industry again. Where is the transformational leader in construction?”

The future of construction is unbuilt; the call for change-makers is out. Prepare for business as unusual.