Leader: Has recession doused our mood for change?

10 May 2012

Elaine Knutt, CM editor

The industry’s lacklustre response to the Government Construction Strategy, as seen in the results of the CM/CIOB online survey, is unlikely to come as a surprise to anyone.

The strategy’s chief architect Paul Morrell — responding to the results in this month’s CM (page 14) — is naturally concerned that the industry has misinterpreted its procurement reforms, missed the point on benchmark costs or leapt to judgement before ideas such as Project Bank Accounts have had time to bed down. But he also acknowledges that timing is a key factor in the industry’s reaction — and the strategy has straddled a long, slow slide into today’s double-dip recession.

The recession has shaped a mind-set that any pro-integration reforms would find hard to shift. On payment, everyone is still culturally inclined to hang on to their money and play safe: for some, good manners might cost them their business. BIM is making good headway in the upper reaches of the industry, but it’s still a step too far for many who are currently engaged in back-to-basics contracting. And while everyone welcomes greater clarity on pipeline projects, no one — least of all those affected by delays to the secondary school building programme — is making hard-and-fast plans.

The issue of SME access to public sector contracts is an intractable one, and again no one should be surprised that SME respondents have hardly been enthused by the Strategy’s pro-SME measures. But when the government and cabinet secretary Francis Maude raised expectations in the first place, there’s further to fall to the bumpy ground of reality.

One question we didn’t ask was whether the industry welcomed the strategy in the first place, and the answer would surely have been “yes”. Coming after a confusing period when construction ministers encountered Whitehall’s revolving doors with alarming regularity, the integrated approach to procurement and sense of a genuine partnership between government and industry embodied in the strategy is surely welcome.

On the other hand, this fundamental demonstration of good faith is undermined by other aspects of industry-government relations that will also have fed into people’s responses. As we write, it looks like the government has performed a U-turn on what the Telegraph and Mail call the “conservatory tax”, and everyone in the industry calls the consequential improvements clause of Part L 2013.

For anyone inclined to doubt the authenticity of the Strategy’s pledges and proposals, the whole debacle demonstrates just how fickle government can be. The Strategy may genuinely be an offer of partnership, but disruptive last-minute policy changes make it look uncomfortably like an unequal one.

Elaine Knutt, editor


New review risks loss of respect

Graham Gilham BEng ICIOB CEng MICE

I write to express concern regarding both the new professional review and the proposed “International” module referred to in “Going Global” (CM, April 2012).

I am sure most readers view the CIOB and RICS as sister bodies. Many job adverts ask for membership of one or the other. In restricting the CIOB professional review to what is essentially “marking coursework” the Institute risks a loss of respect. In the long term, it could face being considered a trade association rather than a professional body.

The professional review process of other comparable bodies now typically requires written submissions prior to a presentation, an interview, and in some cases, a written examination. In eliminating the interview the Institute cannot possibly review a candidate’s professional competence in sufficient depth. A written submission is bound to prompt questions from reviewers which, when posed during an interview, offers the opportunity for a candidate to shine or it exposes their weaknesses.

If the new CIOB professional review “light” prevails it can only mean that RICS membership will increase as the CIOB membership reduces with serious budding professionals seeking a robust and respected professional qualification.

The Institute rightly seeks recognition globally. Why is it necessary to introduce another level of professional review for candidates wishing to work abroad? Surely the “International” accreditation cheapens the Chartered Builder status? Rule 6 of the CIOB “Rules and regulations of professional competence and conduct” says: “Members shall not undertake work for which they knowingly lack sufficient professional or technical competence, or the adequate resources to meet their obligations.”

Thus members need only comply with this in a way that achieves the aim — relevant CPD should be sufficient. In this way the title Chartered Builder can be truly international, but with a British flavour of which we should be justly proud.

BIM is not a panacea for everyone

John Eynon MCIOB, via website

Dominic Thasarathar [senior programme manager at Autodesk, writing on CM’s website] presents a rather rose-tinted view of BIM. Whilst I don’t disagree with his views, I think for most people in the UK, they’re in a different place at the moment.

Two points. First we are in danger of having a two-speed industry for a while — those that have taken the plunge into BIM sometime ago are probably at the point where they can turn this into competitive advantage. If the case studies are even half right, the margins will be significant and mean the difference between winning or losing a job. Second, I suspect the majority of smaller contractors, designers and SMEs are still working out how to engage with BIM and whether to access it.

There is a need to demystify and make BIM more accessible, understandable, and affordable for the masses. We are crossing the chasm to mainstream adoption, but for the huge trailing edge of industry, use and understanding is the biggest challenge we face in moving forward.

Vox pop: What can today’s industry learn from the way things were in the 1950s?

David Knifton, Business development director, Clegg Construction

When I think of the fifties, I think of all the prefab homes that went up after the war because of the desperate housing shortage. Yes, it got over a problem, but the prefab solution didn’t work long-term, nor did the high-rise blocks we put up in the 1960s. We’ve got a similar housing shortage today, but the lesson we have to take from the 50s is not to build prefabs or high-rise! If that means opening up greenfield sites,
so be it — the alternatives risk storing up problems for the future.

Vance Babbage MCIOB, Director, B&M Babbage

I’ve been talking to my dad, who went into building in 1952 straight from National Service, and he talks about the days when a bricklayer would go to work with a tie on. We need to bring back the general appreciation of good craftsmanship, which was so evident in the 1950s. Back then, bricklayers, carpenters, plasterers and joiners were as valued as doctors, dentists and other construction professionals.

Training was much more thorough in the fifties, apprenticeships would last five years and even when completed, it wasn’t automatically assumed that you were able to lay a line, cut roof rafters or paint a room, you were always learning as a journeyman.

Today mobile phones and the internet place everyone under constant pressure to react quickly and be on call 24/7, but back then a simple quotation for a job could be a month’s work by the time you’d written to the client, arranged a meeting, discussed the work and reflected on the job.

Bernard Keogh MCIOB, MD, Arque Construction

In the fifties the onus was on building houses as cheaply and quickly as possible after the war, so there was a refreshing simplicity without the architectural bells and whistles we expect today. The quality of construction was higher because they tended to use natural raw materials, such as solid timber floorboards.

Today we live in a highly regulated industry, but actual quality checks on site are severely lacking. Back then, an apprentice would be answering directly to a mason, who would in turn answer to the foreman etc. It was far more hierarchical, so work was properly supervised and quality was ensured. Today we trust tradesmen to go out and do a good job and mistakes don’t get picked up as easily.

Janet Wood MCIOB, Retired from contractor Faulkner Wood

Regulation was a lot simpler in the fifties, there was a more common sense approach and documents were easy to understand and read. We could easily trim the verbiage from a lot of our documents. During the war, the government set up a number working parties to produce reports on how the country would cope after the war, which included the Simon Report on building contracts, which was short and to the point. In subsequent decades we’ve revisited the same subject of this report through the Emerson Report in 1962, and more recently the Latham and Egan reports, which have gradually increased in size and complexity, but essentially deal with the same topics of being organised, identifying client needs, and managing the supply chain.

Phillip Hall MCIOB, MD, Hall Construction

I was born in the fifties and completed my apprenticeship with a contractor established during that decade, an old-fashioned firm with a joinery shop, a masons shop, and plumbing and electrical shop. I’ve noticed today’s industry reverting to the old ways of doing things. For example, in the fifties there was very little materials wastage, recycling was a daily activity and waste was picked up on a site and taken back to the yard for reuse.

Back then it was an exciting time for construction and there was energy around the idea of rebuilding Britain. Today we need more of that energy to attract more people to get involved.

Nick Riley, Director, Lewis & Hickey Architects

Architecture in the 1950s was heavily influenced by cost and speed of construction. There was still a significant lack of housing and materials were limited. All of this led to the introduction of pre-fabricated building systems such as CLASP, used extensively for schools. This offered cheap, simple and fast modular building systems. Today we share a lot of the same challenges that existed in the fifties, and “offsite” building solutions are again becoming more prevalent.

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