14 May 2013

Rebuilding Broken Britain

To create enduring value within our economy I believe that we need to radically change not only the nature of the buildings that we build, but also, the way that we procure them.  To achieve holistically sustainable buildings it is essential that the procurement process is intelligent and able to assess and reconcile the social, economic and environmental aspects of every project.  However, this is not currently the case, as is amply demonstrated by the current fashion for meaningless architectural “iconography” being built in the City of London.

These projects have all been procured by professional, repeat clients, who claim to take sustainability seriously.  So why are they all building painfully fashionable, contorted building forms that are expensive, spatially compromised, have thermally inefficient fully glazed facades with deep plans that are impossible to daylight?  They have no doubt been encouraged to take this path by senior planners in the City who make powerful recommendations as to which “starchitects” work they would like to see added next to the City’s architectural zoo.  I would argue that developers of these schemes have simply applied a green wrapper to their activities and continued with business as usual, rather than embedding sustainable development at the core of their activities.

To achieve the required paradigm shift, we need to select design team members for their demonstrable track record of innovation in the field of sustainable development.  Project specific briefs should be prepared and published that define what is to be built and what key performance indicators will be used to judge the success of completed projects.  These indicators must include annual occupant satisfaction surveys, operational energy expenditure along with maintenance expenditure, with outcomes made publically accessible: after all, most of these buildings ultimately become assets of our pension funds!

I believe that we need to arrest the decline in quality and fitness for purpose of development; where we can calculate the cost of everything but having little or no understanding of where construction creates value.  To be relevant we must sever the link between construction output and the creation of investment assets whose value bears little or no relation to the performance of the building.  The fact that we are still debating if a “green premium” or a “brown discount” exists is powerful evidence that we are unable to effective ascribe value to the products created by our industry.  In my opinion Quantity Surveyors are obsolete and should be retrained to become Value Managers, able to orchestrate and create enduring value for clients and the wider UK economy.  This would be a good first step in redefining the why that teams interact, smashing professional silos can be and remade to encourage the sustainable outcomes that are urgently required.

Intelligent procurement must incorporate local procurement, so that communities that experience development receive social and economic benefit from the process.  We must stop packaging up ever larger parcels of development and instead place more, smaller, lower value contracts with locally based small and medium sized companies (SME’s) to create more jobs and spread construction expenditure more equitably throughout the UK.  Local firms who will be forced to live with the products of their labours, whereas national or international builders are far less accountable to the communities who inherit the buildings that they deliver and where the value that is created by the process benefits remote shareholders rather than communities.

The idea of local procurement should I believe be taken further with the construction industry supporting locally manufactured building products and materials that also create jobs and value.  This philosophy needs to be incorporated at the brief stage, requiring design and delivery teams to embrace the notion of the final building being Made in Britain, with public reporting of the outcome.  This initiative could drive a fundamental socio-political shift, moving away from a reliance on services to create value, restoring the balance the in the UK economy by supporting manufacturing.

There is a strong belief that Design & Build is the best answer for most buildings and clients.  However, as the recession has continued to bite it is noticeable how the amount of “design” that is being undertaken by contractors has dramatically reduced.  It is essential that Project Managers undertake detailed analysis of tender returns, if clients are to get the buildings that they think that they are buying, rather than the best that the contractor can cobble together without the correct amount of timely, expert detailed design.

Large organisations are changing their terms and conditions, increasing the time that suppliers have to wait to be paid; contractor Carillion now expect suppliers to wait 120 days to receive payment.  This creates cash flow issues further down the supply chain and can result in small, well run companies going out of business.  Associated with this issue is the protracted nature of contractual negotiations, demands to agree to unfair and ultimately uninsurable terms and conditions, resulting in significant delay in the period from starting work to receipt of the first payment.  It is essential that the government takes urgent action to get the money moving and should start by insisting that all appointments are agreed prior to commencement and strict 30 days terms are mandatory.

We must increase investment in training and education to equip our workforce with the skill, knowledge and expertise required to add sustainable value, regardless of the individual’s role in the supply chain. Crucially, I believe that we need to invest in vocational training to radically improve skill levels within our sector and create a workforce who are able to deliver construction to the higher levels of performance required.  The industry must offer great career opportunities for all regardless of gender.

For the construction sector to once again become an engine for growth in the UK economy then investment must be focused not on iconic new build schemes but instead on the refurbishment of our existing building stock.  We urgently need to invest in improving the performance of our existing buildings now!  This will create jobs, establish the essential missing link between energy efficiency and energy supply, reduce our reliance on expensive imported energy and ultimately reduce the number and cost of the next generation of nuclear power stations that we will be forced to buy from aboard if we are to keep the lights on.

To rebuild broken Britain sustainably we need to radically change the things that we build, along with the ways that we procure them.  Professional boundaries need to be challenged and new bodies established.  I would argue that none of the existing professional bodies can provide the leadership needed and what we require is an Institution for Sustainable Development, open to all professions and their clients, which can effectively research, promote and lobby for change.

Localism should be reinterpreted to demand that the value created by development directly benefits the communities that host development, creating jobs and economic activity close to the site.  On a national scale we should develop a new vernacular architecture using materials and products that are Made in Britain, including the development of upcycled products that convert waste materials into new construction products and materials.  Fundamentally we need to understand, through compulsory Display Energy Certificates (DEC), how every building in the UK is performing and then use this intelligence to guide a national refurbishment mission to dramatically improve performance.

This piece was first published in Sustain Magazine May/June 2013

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