News Roundup: June 2010

8 June 2010

Richard Wiltshire examining William Verry's archives

Construction to be archived

The Business Archives Council is to launch a new project to rediscover and make public the valuable historical records on the national built heritage held by construction companies, writes Stephen Cousins.

The National Archives, the government body which co-ordinates national policy on archiving, has awarded the BAC a £35,000 grant to carry out a survey of local authority and company archives related to architecture, building and construction.

A professional archivist will be appointed to survey the records already held in public archives, but also to delve into private companies’ records. The research will focus on larger contractors, as smaller firms would be less likely to have the resources to archive their records.

A selection of the reports, minute books, accounts, correspondence and photographs uncovered will be put online for researchers, amateur historians and members of the public to access. 

Terry Gourvish, chairman of BAC, says there is a “vast field” of forgotten information. “There will be records of surviving buildings, construction techniques, patents and major projects,” he said. “We’ve already done surveys in ship building, banking, brewing and pharmaceuticals, so we have a good track record in surveying sectors and creating an invaluable resource for researchers.”

The BAC is urging construction firms to offer access to their records. As well as contributing to the project, they will benefit from advice on archiving.

“We understand they may have other concerns at the moment, but we hope companies will be sympathetic to our task,” said Gourvish. “We also hope the Construction History Society will help with the work.”

He adds that the BAC survey could act as a catalyst for companies to improve record-keeping. “Several companies still fall short of the ISO9000 standard, which all major companies should meet.”

BAC trustee Richard Wiltshire, a senior archivist at the London Metropolitan Archive, is currently studying the archives of two London contractors that have recently gone into administration – William Verry and Harry Neale.

Wiltshire, who retrieved the archives before they were sold along with the rest of the companies’ assets, explains their relevance: “[Company] archives are important as they can complement the county records on planning and licences to explain how a city or region was built.

“Owners or managers of historic buildings often need access to construction records, and we can sometimes find records of technological advances, which are of interest to construction historians.”

He agrees with Gourvish that companies should set up a formal records management policy to preserve the most valuable records for the future, or seek advice if they are uncertain.

“Companies need to record more than the job number, ideally there should be brief descriptions of what they were building and anything special or unusual about it – perhaps there was an interesting design concept that the contractor contributed to. It’s about keeping the right records, destroying the records you don’t need and having a good filing system.’

“At William Verry, I realised that their recent records were retained for less than six years. As an archivist, I know that some of these would have long-term value. An archivist can offer advice, and in some cases it might be to deposit archives with a local authority archive.” He urges firms to make use of the new BAC website –

A report on the findings of the BAC survey will be completed by March 2012. Documents will be posted on the BAC website and The National Archives’ historical records server.


MPs to bat for industry

A cross-party group of MPs and peers is being put together by the Construction Industry Council to boost the profile of the construction industry within parliament.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment will be inaugurated at an annual general meeting on 7 June, at Portcullis House, and formally launched at a reception at the Institution of Civil Engineers on 7 July.

It will be chaired by Tony Baldry MP, a fellow of the CIOB and a former construction, housing and planning minister under the last Conservative government. Other officers will be elected at the parliamentary meeting in June.

The CIC chief executive Graham Watts said he hopes the group will attract between 40 and 50 members from the three main parties within both Houses - including many of the newly-elected MPs in the photo above.

“There are plenty of groups focusing on buildings, architecture, plumbing, fire safety, but no one looks at the bigger picture,” he told CM. “We want parliamentarians to have a broader understanding of the significance of the built environment to the economy and to their constituents’ lives. At the moment, that influence or knowledge isn’t there.”

Watts said the group will hold between four and six events a year, including visits to construction sites.

Commenting on the new group, Eddie Tuttle, policy and ambassador manager at the CIOB, said: “It’s a welcome way of making the case for industry, particularly given the budgetary constraints at the moment. It’s about raising the profile of construction and making sure we have a voice in parliament.

“The industry has a central role in creating a low-carbon economy, whether through the refurbishment of existing building stock or new infrastructure.”


Catherine Sermon

Darren Holman


Darren Holman, Catherine Sermon

Business in the Community and the Financial Times have just published the 2009 Corporate Responsibility Index. Darren Holman, CR Index manager, and Catherine Sermon, community impact director, discuss this year’s index and what the “big society” means for construction.

How did construction perform?

Ten companies from the construction and materials sector participated: BAM Construct UK (Silver); Costain Group (Gold); Kier Group (Bronze); Laing O’Rourke (Silver); Marshalls (Silver); Morgan Est (Silver); Morrison (Bronze – most improved CR Index company); Ringway Group (Bronze); Wates Group (Platinum); Willmott Dixon (Silver).Their average CRI score was 84%, in 2008 it was 74%. On average they scored well in workplace, environment and marketplace. The results also tell us they find it hard to demonstrate the positive social and environmental impacts of their CR initiatives.

But is their environmental performance improving?

When seven of these companies participated in 2008, reporting on environmental impacts was very basic. But the increased score for this element of the CRI in 2009 is extremely encouraging.

How does our sector compare with the rest of the business world?

The construction sector’s average score was 2% lower than the overall CRI average. Companies in the construction and materials sector scored lower than average in the CR Integration, Community Management and Environmental Impact sections.

What do you think the “big society” means for the business world?

It is not yet clear how business can most effectively contribute, but as a business-led and values-driven movement, BITC is in a strong position to support businesses to be a part of it.

How can the industry respond?

This is an opportunity for construction companies and developers to get closer to local communities. Potential decentralisation of government powers to local authorities, which is likely to include planning, will put community engagement at the heart of the business case. Competitive advantage will no longer lie in engaging with communities at a local level in the first place, but in doing it extremely well.


Working party set up to probe diversity and equality issues

The UK Contractors’ Group has set up a working party on Equality and Diversity, with a brief to come up with workable proposals to raise diversity in construction as a whole.

The group, chaired by Wates HR director Julia Tyson and including Willmott Dixon HR manager Alison Symmers, will advise on targets, progress milestones, and improving the industry’s appeal to women and black or Asian entrants.

Willmott Dixon has the distinction of employing Gemma Sapiano, the only women to win a CIOB CMYA Gold award. “When we have new joiners, we hope they instantly recognise it’s a diverse company,” said group human resources director Rick Lee.

Meanwhile, CITB-ConstructionSkills has announced that it has joined gay equality charity Stonewall’s Diversity Champion programme.

The skills body committed to support its own staff who may be lesbian, gay or bisexual, and will encourage construction employers to recruit a diverse workforce. 

In a statment, the organisation said the move will send a signal to the industry that it should take equality seriously. 


Month in numbers 

The number of points that Experian’s construction activity index rose in March, leaving negative territory for the first time since February 2008.


The average age of an electrician, according to the Electrical Contractors’ Association, calling for firms to pay “transfer fees’ if they poached staff that were trained elsewhere.


The number of cows that would be needed to produce enough methane to power a data centre, according to resourceful researchers at Hewlett-Packard.


The amount British Land is investing in three new office developments in London, including the “Cheesegrater”.


The expected cost-per-mile of the London-to-Birmingham high-speed rail link. The Queen’s Speech announced that the government had set aside £17bn.


The value of government contracts cancelled by chancellor George Osborne in his first wave of spending cuts.


BIM needs better understanding

The challenge of Building Information Modelling lies in failing to embrace it and falling behind, an audience of contractors and CIOB members heard last week.

The warning came from Wates’ design manager Lisa Gould MCIOB (pictured below left), who presented the findings of the research project she undertook as one of the first CIOB scholars from the Faculty of Architecture and Surveying.

Fellow scholar Robert Thompson MCIOB (below right), a design manager from Interserve, spoke about the challenge of capturing innovations, and concluded that design managers should act as “innovation champions”, while contractors should set up online databases to spread innovations among staff.

Gould cut through the confusion surrounding BIM by defining three different variants: Level 1 is already achieved by most contractors, Level 2 is the preserve of the most forward-thinking, and Level 3 is “Big Bang BIM”, or the fully-integrated real-time design, cost and carbon modelling tool that is part achievable aspiration, part sci-fi.

“You can use it to model any information  you want, from pupil behaviour in schools to off-site manufacturing,” Gould said. “The fact that BIM can model and predict carbon outputs could be a major factor in accelerating its take-up.”


Arup pushes the envelope in Singapore

Completion has been reached on the Arup-engineered Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore – a stunning place to stay, but an even more impressive one to build.

The three curved towers extend to 55 storeys, supporting a 1ha “sky park” perched 200m in the air with a 50m cantilever at one end. 

Designed by US architect Moshe Safdie and the local office of UK architect Aedas, the entire complex also has convention facilities, a shopping mall, restaurants, casino and two theatres. An Art-Science museum is still under construction.

But the pièce de résistance will be the hotel’s Sands SkyPark, featuring 900 species of trees and plants and a swimming pool along its entire length.

Cheong Va-Chan, Arup’s project director, said: “Arup has had to push engineering boundaries and adopt new and innovative technologies to deliver this spectacular design.”


Industry is storing up trouble over skills shortage, reveals CIOB survey

Skills shortages will continue to hold the industry back even as it adjusts to a lower workload and more redundancies, concludes the latest CIOB survey. Based on responses from 560 members, the “Skills in the UK Construction Industry 2010” survey found that 72.1% of respondents believe there is a skills shortage in the industry.

In order of frequency, the skills deficits they identified were trade skills (66.4%), construction technology and innovation (50.6%), leadership and management skills (43.3%) and environmental and sustainability skills (31.1%).

But the survey also reveals that employers are laying the groundwork for an ongoing skills crisis. A third of respondents said the recession had resulted in a reduction in graduate recruitment at their firms, while 20.3% said recruitment of graduates had ceased altogether. Meanwhile 32.9% said apprenticeships were down, and 17.5% had stopped recruiting apprentices.

Lynne Crowe, regional manager at recruitment consultant Hays Construction, warned that these trends were storing up “massive issues” for the future: “We have seen apprenticeships decline for the past six or seven years, and graduate recruitment decline over the past two years. Companies see it as a major cost, rather than long-term investment.”

Carmel Brennan, national training manager at Kier, says that the firm has cut its graduate intake but remains committed to its sponsored students. “Many companies are completely withdrawing from their graduate programmes and although we haven’t had any external graduate recruitment in two years, we have made it a priority to maintain our graduate sponsorship programme,” she said. “It’s critical to maintain a relationship with them as they will ensure the future success of the company.”

But employers appear dissatisified with the content of university courses: 65.9% of survey respondents said graduates did not have the necessary skills to work in the industry when they left education.

“Courses can be very academic, although it varies from uni to uni,” says Kier’s Brennan. “We’ve noticed it particularly with construction management graduates, on day one they think they are going to be managing a site but they lack people skills, they have the technical training but little application of it, or the ability to deal with and manage people on site.”

The survey also suggests that CIOB members feel it is time to open up new avenues of recruitment: 49.3% agree that improving skills levels could mean recruiting from other sectors.

Crowe welcomes this trend: “Firms need clued-up contract managers and commercial managers who can make an impact on profitability. These could come from many sectors, such as banking, retail sectors or any commercial environment.”

Recruitment policies may be dictated by market conditions, however. The CIOB survey shows that only 38.6% expect workload to increase in 2010/11, compared to 24.5% who expect to see a decrease and 35.9% who expect work levels to stay the same. And 43% expect the construction workforce to shrink in 2010/11, while 32.3% said it would remain stable and 22.7% predicted rises.


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