Insight

Finding a way to an integrated industry...

5 January 2014

... BEng Built Environment

A proposed new construction degree could bring together our separate built environment professions and ensure that students are better equipped for work in the real, BIM-based world. CM and Ryder Architecture brought together an industry panel to discuss an educational revolution. Elaine Knutt reports. Photographs by Ed Tyler.

You don’t need to work in construction for more than five minutes before you start wondering just why there are so many different specialist skills, such diverse teams, such wide information gaps. Work in it for five minutes longer and you’ll soon realise that one reason for all these splits and borders is our Higher Education system.

When every student on an accredited construction degree course is primed to think of themselves as a CIOB, RICS, CIBSE or RIBA-in-waiting, then that’s one way that the professional “silos” are perpetuated.

But what if there was a new type of degree course, one that gave talented young people a far broader professional programme? That didn’t pigeon hole them into a fixed mindset from their first term, allowing them to graduate with a holistic and flexible view of how projects are delivered? The “Bachelor of the Built Environment” degree (see box) would create professionals with a common background in design, cost appraisal, planning and sustainability before they even think about which institute to join. 

That’s the crux of a new proposal now gaining traction in the industry. It originated in 2012 from an informal discussion group set up by architect Ryder, which was spurred into action by growing awareness that seven expensive years of architectural education was still failing to produce young entrants who could run energy efficiency calculations or think from the contractor’s viewpoint. Gathering support and momentum from big employers (Laing O’Rourke, Cundall, and now Gleeds) and professional institutions (CIOB, CIAT, CIBSE, RICS and APM) it is already being taken seriously by three universities.

"There's never any trouble getting applications for architecture, it's a seductive, image-laden career. Compare that with building services engineering!"

Professor David Greenwood, University of Northumbria

As Ryder senior partner Peter Buchan explains, the mismatch between specialised degrees and day-to-day jobs was threatening to become a chasm in an era of BIM, integration and collaborative working. “We’d become increasingly frustrated by the silo method of operation we have in this industry, between design and construction, and design and economics, and the lack of uptake of new ways of working. It seemed as an industry there was no way we were going to act with any accord in terms of better design and better buildings until we found ways of overcoming some of those issues.”

At the beginning of his Ryder career, he recalls a genuine culture of multi-disciplinary design – which later gave way to specialisation driven by risk aversion and PI insurance. “Have we got better at what we’re doing? Or have we just chopped the professions up into more silos, and created new professions whose job it is to stitch it all back together again? Until education changes, the professions aren’t going to change, and before that happens, the professional bodies have to change, so we’ve got a whole structure that reinforces what we’ve already got.”

Now, the proposal for a new degree – offered as an alternative to traditional courses rather than a replacement – is being “market tested” in the industry, with the CM debate part of a process to flag up its positive features and possible flaws. The participants comprise the original working group, interested adherents and industry representatives learning about the proposal for the first time.

Essentially, the case for change is that the industry can’t break down barriers between different professional and contractually-defined groups without an influx of individuals who genuinely think, act and behave collaboratively. But the doubters raise serious questions: with most universities already working closely with employers, continuously updating curricula and stressing collaboration, are they acting as a convenient hook to hang a larger problem on? With 17% of students at UK universities applying from overseas, would we simply mystify them? And even if the proposal makes sense at an industry level, what is the attraction of a longer academic path to professional accreditation (see below) for anyone paying £9,000 a year in tuition fees?

Radical reappraisal

Opening the debate, University of Northumbria professor David Greenwood goes straight to Buchan’s point about institutional accreditation underpinning a dysfunctional system. “The tectonic shifts [in industry] need a radical reappraisal of the universities of what they’re delivering,” he says. “But... at undergraduate level, we’re gripped by the fear that courses won’t be professionally accredited – we’ve got this sea anchor dragging behind us, because if they’re not professionally recognised, they’re not marketable.” The question hangs in the air – would the institutions accredit the proposed new course?

Bridget Bartlett, chief operating officer of the CIOB, responds positively. “If there’s a case for progressive reform, the CIOB would broadly support it,” she says. But she points out that a trend towards multi-discipline courses is already underway, partly as a result of austerity-struck universities rationalising their teaching provision so that engineers, surveyors and construction managers often share modules. “People are getting used to crossing disciplinary courses, so that could work to our advantage,” she notes.

But she also highlights the steady decline in demand for undergraduate programmes in the built environment – a growing challenge for an industry that needs to attract thousands of bright, capable young people year after year. So would the Future of Built Environment Education (FBEE) proposal create a strong, appealing identity for a career in the built environment, a broad proposition with the promise of later specialisation?

LSBU’s Darren James agrees that most school leavers “struggle” to make out career opportunities in the built environment and sees the inherent appeal of an integrated degree. “18-year-old school leavers often think they want to be architects, but actually they don’t want to be an architect. They might want to deal with drawings, even do some drawings, and do something in construction technology.” And he notes that LSBU has a common curriculum for first years in building surveying, construction management and property management.

Fixed roles

But FBEE’s premise is that all students would follow a course including structural and services engineering. This, James thinks, could be a step too far. “With engineering, because of the nature of the courses, it’s very mathematical and analytical. If you’re doing the other professions [in the built environment], there’s less of that and different A-Level entry criteria. So to make that the common in the first year, you’re going to put off the whole group of students who don’t like the analytical/mathematical side.”

"If there's a case for progressive reform, the CIOB would broadly support it. People are getting used to cross-disciplining courses, so that could work to our advantage."

Bridget Bartlett, CIOB

So what are the views of the participant who most recently graduated? Northumbria graduate and Mace cost consultant Rachael Park agrees with Bartlett and James that universities are adopting cross-discipline teaching and shared modules anyway, but says that her student cohort still slotted into fixed professional roles from an early stage. “Quantity surveying, building surveying, construction management and estates management were all grouped together, you are integrating and collaborating. But it’s still pretty much ‘you guys do construction, you guys go into consultancy, and you guys are the architects’… it’s pretty much defined.”

But even though her experience demonstrates one of the problems Ryder is trying to address, Park is fairly sceptical about the proposal. “Yes, you do have students who don’t know what they want to do, so having an integrated first year or second year is really good. But I just don’t get why I would spend a lot more money doing an all-for-one degree then a masters, when I could just do a Bachelors in QSing, and that gets me where I need to be.” When students are investing £9,000 a year, this is a salient point.

Aeli Roberts, admissions tutor from UCL’s school of construction and project management, also throws out some questions. First, she notes that the proposal is only addressing the top layer of the industry, while the modernising and collaborating imperative affects it as a whole. “We sit and talk about the needs of ‘the industry’, but 85% of the industry is SMEs – we’re the top end.”

And she stresses that her institution – and universities in general – are already responding to the industry’s shifting needs. “In terms of the course, we are introducing a module with BIM and post occupancy and trying to make the students aware the FM side is really important. I think we’re generally doing  a good job. Maybe the industry should be jumping up and down and saying ‘look, we do do good things’, and learn from them rather than ‘let’s start all over again and reinvent’.” In fact, she says pointedly, UCL’s biggest problem is recruiting the industry employers her construction and project management students need for work placements.

Round the table, her view that employers need to take more of an interest in what happens in Higher Education is taken up. Ryder’s Mark Thompson, a member of the CBI’s Construction Council, feels that many of the major contractors on that forum have taken a short-termist approach to training their talent pipeline. In his view it’s the smaller regional contractors – rather than the national plcs – that are doing most on the ground to engage the next generation.

"We employ people who've done M&E engineering in the school of engineering, and when they come in they have to do a lot of building specific training."

Simon Wyatt, associate, Cundall

Matthew Quelch, of Oaklands College, a member of the CIC 2050 group, says employers can’t complain about the results of the degree system unless they’re influencing things at an earlier stage. “If the employer wants to pick from a wider pool of candidates, they have to get in there. Not once they’ve gone through the college or university. You need to get in there when people are 16 or 18 with careers advice, and provide it directly.” He’s particularly keen that an FBEE degree should have a strong linkage to industry: “Shouldn’t it be mandatory that students spend three months actually on site?”

Recruitment consultant Dave Madden of Mustard welcomes the FBEE proposal because he perceives a problem with design firms trying to recruit to a fixed template, and making a simplistic equation between BIM and Revit. “Most employers we deal with… aren’t thinking outside the box, they see tick boxes that need ticking. It’s frustrating because there are very talented people in the market but they’re not getting work.”

But Northumbria’s David Greenwood has even more pressing grounds for an alternative educational approach. “We run a variety of courses, there’s never any trouble getting applications for architecture, it’s a seductive, image-laden career. Compare that with building services engineering! We changed the name various times, and we still can’t get anybody to study it, even if we offer them all two jobs at the end of it. So anything that brings people in with the rosy image of how sexy it is to be an architect, and then maybe they think, ‘I can just about handle the maths of this’ and look at the job prospects… that would be great.”

Simon Wyatt, an associate at Cundall, is certainly convinced it would help populate the future industry with the range of talents and skills it will need. “When we go to market for our graduates, the first place we look is for building services engineers, and there just are no courses. So we employ people who’ve done M&E engineering in the school of engineering, and when they come in they have to do a lot of building specific training. If you could incorporate more M&E engineers into this kind of course it would be a great start.”

"We talk about 'the industry', but 85% of the industry is SMEs. But I think we're generally doing a good job, and maybe the industry should be jumping up and down and saying look, we do good things."

Aeli Roberts, admissions tutor, UCL

Broadening the options

Alex Wright, one of the original working group, stressed that the course wouldn’t in any way replace traditional degrees and pathways, but would broaden the options available. “In general, I’m in favour of providing as great an array of choice for the student as possible. You don’t really have a free market in higher education – effectively the market will decide. If this is a course that will attract people in sufficient numbers it will thrive, if it’s unable to, it will wither.”

Wright seems to have summed up the overall conclusion of the debate: what’s critical is not so much the specifics of this BEng proposal as the need to broaden the range of higher education options available. And, as Wright also points out, the significance of the discussion lies in the fact that we’re having it in the first place. Amid all the industry’s introspection over its efficiency failings and aspirations for an integrated future, addressing what happens in our universities has hardly been touched on. If reform is now on the table, it’s largely thanks to Ryder.

Better by degree? The Construction BEng

The working group set up by Ryder has launched the Future of Built Environment Education (FBEE) campaign to promote a new four-year undergraduate degree in the Built Environment followed by a master’s degree in a specialised subject. The third year of the undergraduate course would be spent working in the industry.

The degree would have six main components:

  • Architecture, urban design and landscape
  • Environmental science and engineering
  • Structural and civil engineering
  • Construction
  • Economics, property development and planning
  • Property management

Students would be expected to gain 120 credits a year. In the first year they would take 20-credit modules in each of the six subjects, narrowing to four, 30-credit modules in the second year. In the final year, with their strengths and preferences more established after a year in industry, they would choose three longer modules carrying 40 credits. Each module would have an exam. In addition, years one, two and four would also culminate in an integrated project.

Topics such as leadership, project management, cost and risk management, sustainability and BIM would feature in all modules rather than being specialist bolt-ons. Students would also be given an awareness of legal issues, contracts and programming.

To achieve chartered status in their chosen discipline, such as CIBSE, CIOB, ICE, IstructE, RIBA or RICS, students would then study a three-year, part-time Masters programme alongside full-time employment. This combination of academic study and practical experience would exempt students from any professional exams, with an interview to confirm their chartered status.

Students with other related degrees could also be eligible for the Masters following a foundation or conversion course.

Comments

I came across a similar idea 50 years ago and in fact believe it was being operated by some universities then. It taught general building encompassing a number of disciplines with the final year, maybe two years in the specialised subject. I believe the new degree will work if it is sold correctly to the potential student. At 18 years of age youngsters are not sure what they want to do for the rest of their lives and if they have chosen construction, keeping open their options for as long as possible would be good sense.

Michael Matthews, 10 January 2014

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