Opinion

Editorial: Sept11

6 September 2011

Renewable issues add up to a deal of trouble

The devil, as they say, is in the detail. And nowhere is this truer than in the installation of new technologies in our attempts to reduce energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.

But as we report in our cover feature, this attention to detail appears to missing, as popular renewable technologies such as biomass boilers and ground-source heat pumps bring a host of teething problems and surprises in new homes.

This is not by and large because there is anything inherently wrong with the kit. It is because the technology is more complex than landlords, builders and home owners anticipate. It’s all very well installing toilets that use rainwater for flushing, but not if a slight problem with a valve installation means that if it doesn’t rain they don’t switch over to mains water — and won’t flush. Or installing heat recovery systems and then forgetting to change the filters.

Our feature focuses on the problems in domestic settings, but the hiccups don’t end there. Recent findings by the Carbon Trust reveal that low energy buildings of all types are using on average three to five times more energy than expected.

Imprecision with installation, commissioning and maintenance, plus poor communication between installer and user is undermining performance.

But one thing is for sure: if energy efficiency and renewable technologies get repeatedly used in the same sentence as trouble, the government may as well forget about rolling out the Green Deal.

There are already indications that the scheme will be greeted with a lukewarm response when it launches next autumn. Almost half the homeowners who expressed interest in a Green Deal pilot scheme in Sutton then turned it down, despite the offer of a 40% grant, because they thought the long-term savings would be lower than expected.

And there lies the key problem: building firms don’t want to invest in training until they see a tangible workload, while housing associations may not be able to afford specialist maintenance training because they have so few properties where these technologies are installed.

On the positive side three sector skills councils, including ConstructionSkills, have come together to research what training is required. The government too is on the verge of drawing up a new Green Deal standard to protect the consumer.

But at the grass roots we’re in classic chicken and egg territory to which there is no easy answer. That said, this is not an agenda that’s going away and at the very least companies should start educating staff into the complexity of the technology and the knock-on effect of even the smallest errors.

Another step to improvement is admitting to problems. No clients ever want to hang out their dirty linen in public. But evaluating performance is one of the key gaps in creating greener buildings.

So somehow the industry needs to be able to talk openly about teething issues as it steers a path through uncharted waters. And from sharing mistakes, allow others to learn from them.

Construction plays the X Factor

So Francis Maude has taken a page out of Simon Cowell’s book and is giving senior servants the job of mentoring large contracting firms. The premise is that by working more closely the two sides will stand a much better chance of reducing costs of government procurement. It won’t sit particularly well with many small firms who might see this as another example of a policy that favours the big boys. 

But really no one should be complaining about it. The industry has long lamented the lack of interest from Whitehall, so if more top-level civil servants understand the sector, this scheme has the potential to benefit everyone.

Vox pop

What do you think will be the effect of the changes to the Construction Act in October?

Peter Gracia, Director, Gracia Consult

The Construction Act will not bring a new dawn for the construction industry. The old 96 Act rules will still be used for ages as the 2009 rules will not have retrospective effect. Removing the written contract provisions will certainly not simplify things and lots of arguments will run on the oral contracts and what was actually agreed.

Parties are still unable to issue withholding notices properly 10 years after the legislation came into force and the new “I can issue or you can issue” seesaw provisions will lead to more disputes. Everyone has seen a downturn in adjudication business and the courts have been relatively quiet in the past four months or so, but this recent lull may well pick up again after enactment, but only for the new contracts.

Stuart Hill, Associate, Calfordseaden

It’s strange seeing the Act coming in during a recession, as I can see a tension between what companies will purport to do to meet its requirements and what they’ll actually do out of sheer economic necessity.

Everyone’s looking at the bottom line at the moment, and while expectations in contracts remain high, the emphasis is really on driving costs down. With these all going design and build, the contractor is assuming risk. Subs go bust, contracts are re-tendered, all at cost, and I wonder how much everyone will actually buy into the procedural stuff they should.

I know people are now not disclosing payment records, yet they might be needed to prove compliance with the Act. This creates a lack of trust
in the industry, and you get the feeling that there will be a lot of blind eyes turned.

Simon Rawlinson, Head of Strategic Research, EC Harris

Revisions to payment certification such as the “pay less notice” will be made more complex because organisations will be running projects based on both the old and new payment systems.

There are challenges in the “pay when paid” provisions, where payments under one contract cannot be linked to payments in another. Combined with a strengthened right of suspension, the likelihood is that cash will flow down to subcontractors more quickly — potentially putting contractor cash flow and finances under greater strain.

The industry should be able to manage the transition, but these are stressful times and organisations are being run very “lean”, so omissions might result, and these are best avoided by early affirmative action.

Danielle Cafferkey, Pre-contracts negotiations director, Shepherd Construction

I’d be surprised if anyone would be shocked by its proposals. We’ve been working with all our supply chains for a while and developed good working relationships with them, so from a general contracts administration angle I don’t think it’s anything that’s going to upset to our business.

What will be interesting is how the courts interpret the Act and how they rule on it. Given the unusual economic situation the country’s in, we’re going to see a legal bias one way or the other, so it’ll be a case of sitting tight and seeing where rulings on adjudications fall.

Contact us

Do you have an opinion on any of this month’s articles? Email: construction-manager@atompublishing.co.uk

Apologies to reader Chris Grisenthwaite whose informative letter in July/August about education was attributed to the wrong author.

Feedback

Our news story ‘Gay group calls for diversity’ in the July/August edition generated many comments online. Here’s a selection...

Simon Oak

A little over 5% of our workforce are openly gay, marginally under the national average of 6%. Does this make us champions of diversity? I don’t know.
We believe in equality, ie the best person to do the job irrespective of sex, race, religion or sexual orientation. What would be wrong is to start imposing quotas. Do I support equality? Yes. Do I support bias? Most definitely not.

Shaun Brennan

I take issue with this article, when does anyone walk up to someone on site and tell them in the introduction what their sexual orientation is. I also take issue with the statement that construction is a few years behind other industries.

The construction industry has been a champion of minorities and women. Just because they are not sat at the top of the tree of management within years doesn’t mean we are discriminating against them, it is because they are not yet right for the posts.

It is time to stop putting people in boxes and labelling them — our industry works as a team, regardless of colour, creed or sexual orientation.

Callum Lee

Stonewall is right — we’re stuck in the 1970s in the construction industry. It’s not about bias or quotas, it’s about removing the barriers and helping gay and lesbian people get into the industry and move up in it.

Matthew Shepherd

The gap in current practice isn’t about “we need X number of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transexual (LGBT) employees”, it’s about fostering and encouraging an inclusive attitude towards LGBT people within the profession. If you come from a minority then, given pre-existing workplace networks, you can easily find yourself in a position that you have to work twice as hard to catch up and move up in your job. The issue is that minorities don’t have access to the top jobs and are held back by a “glass ceiling”.

As Stonewall points out, this isn’t just a “fluffy” exercise in equality — there are quantifiable economic benefits too. This shouldn’t be seen as an attack on existing approaches to improve inclusiveness in construction, but a springboard from which the sector can grow and take a lead in these sorts of issues.

Phillip Dawson

At Fraser Brown MacKenna Architects 10% of our workforce are LGBT – that statistic includes me. 45% of our staff are female (which I think is unusual for the architectural profession).

Whilst these statistics are interesting for those who are in to that sort of thing, they aren’t something I give much thought to — they are simply the product of our decision to recruit solely on the basis of talent.

I agree about not wanting to see any form of “quota”. However, as a result of the make up of our office I would hope that prospective employees feel more reassured about our credentials in terms of equality and diversity and that in turn may well encourage more applicants — which can only be to the benefit of the business?

King kong wins gong

The Empire State Building, as seen in King Kong, has been voted as your favourite building in films, following our feature in July/August. Die Hard’s Fox Plaza was second. Other suggestions included The White House in Independence Day and New York’s Natural History Museum in Night at the Museum.

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