The Future of Construction with I-Construct Expert Peter Searle
Earlier this month we had a conversation with I-Construct mentor and industry expert, Peter Searle, about "three big streams of change occurring in construction", which come together in The Construction Playbook.
Published by the government in December 2020, ‘The Playbook’ is a vision for the reform of the construction industry, or as Peter describes it: “the overall strategy that the government is hoping people will follow”. It describes 14 key government policies designed to change how public works are delivered. Policies, they explain, that are needed to achieve both the £37 billion of public sector works projects expected this year, and to help the sector ‘build the economy of the future’ post-COVID.
In ‘The Playbook’ the government also outlines its commitment to supporting SMEs in the supply chain. While the changes mandated may seem significant, especially to an SME, Peter explains that the construction industry has achieved high levels of change before:
The Construction Playbook touches on every area of construction project management from policy to operations. Below, Peter gives us a breakdown of three key trends: digitisation, off-site manufacturing, and construction culture.
The digital strategy features prominently within ‘The Playbook’, which advocates further embedding of the UK BIM Framework and digital twins to ‘improve the performance, sustainability, and value for money of projects. Peter says BIM adoption is, “moving forward at quite a rapid pace with the larger contractors”, while smaller companies have much further to go to catch up. This is a situation ‘The Playbook’ suggests is partly due to SME capacity, and so could be improved through the creation of joint ventures and consortia.
For change to happen in any sector there needs to be customer demand. While Peter acknowledges that, “the government is obviously leading this because they're a big procurer”, he points out other large clients, are behind the curve when it comes to adopting new technology to manage their property portfolios:
"When they do catch up and start to really use BIM for asset management, organisations who have not got there yet will soon see the benefits."
With off-site manufacturing, progress is more obvious, “that's definitely on the rise and people are starting to see the benefit of it” says Peter. ‘The Playbook’ explains that the government wants to:
Drive innovation and Modern Methods of Construction, through the standardization and aggregation of demand, increased client capability and setting clear requirements of suppliers.
It’s easy to see how this approach makes sense for manufacturers and the larger contractors they supply, but how can SME builders and suppliers start using off-site methods? Peter suggested:
"Each time you do it, you can progressively add another element. So even on the one-off projects, there's no reason why an SME can't get involved with pre-manufactured components. They can start with fairly simple things like timber frame houses. I've got one client that's using cross-laminated timber and you can use CLT to deliver fairly bespoke designs. First, you produce the frame and panels for one house. Then, once you've completed one project, the next time you do a project, you can go further and incorporate say, the conduits for the wiring offsite or add the inside finishes.
"For individual trades combining components off-site is not new, we already have door-sets and pre-plumbed panels. All trades need to think about what other components they can join together off-site and bring together as a unit."
The off-site process relies on having accurate measurements, so there’s cross-over with digitisation and BIM. As Peter explains, for most, it’s a whole new way of working:
"It’s the coordination and how you get components that have been combined together into a building which is more difficult, it's a different mindset."
Returning to the topic of improving safety, the third change Peter is seeing is to the sector’s culture:
"The image of construction is changing significantly, and those who are subscribed to the Considerate Constructors Scheme are making great inroads into social value. Social value includes diversity, inclusivity, and mental health."
The focus on mental health is incredibly important as:
Every working day, two construction workers take their own life. (Lighthouse Club, The Construction Industry Charity).
In fact, Thriving at Work – a government review into mental health – reported that:
Men working in construction and decorating are 35% more likely to take their own lives. (Office of National Statistics. Suicide by occupation, England: 2011 to 2015; 2017).
Poor mental health has a significant impact on individuals and those around them, while suicide has a devastating and long-lasting impact on families and communities. It also has a knock-on effect on businesses. Poor mental health costs private sector employers between £1,119 and £1,481 per employee per year (Thriving at Work: The Stephenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers, October 2017).
Thankfully, as Peter says, more is now being done to improve the situation:
"The top-tier contractors and the more sophisticated regional contractors are all on the case already with mental health first-aiders.
"It's certainly being recognized and the Lighthouse Club charity is really good at raising awareness. There's a lot of things going on in the industry that are really good."
At the end of June 2021, the Lighthouse Club reported that the Building Mental Health project has helped to increase the number of Mental Health First Aiders by more than 5,000 since 2018. Mental Health First Aiders are the first point of contact for anyone going through a mental health issue.
In conclusion, there is still much to be done by the industry to achieve the government’s high targets. Reading The Construction Playbook is a good first step in understanding the sector’s direction of travel. Our expert leaves us with these words of encouragement: