Saturday, 20 April 2013

If I were a king for the day...

A Manifesto for a New Construction.

I know it is never going to happen but if I was, apart seeing Newcastle United beat Manchester United on the last day of the season to win the Premiership I would change a few things in the construction industry.

I would look at construction with a new set of eyes and encourage all parts of the industry to think differently about everything they do. If I could I would wipe the hard drive clean of many of the people in the industry. I would re install the skills but would install new information about culture and approach.

First and foremost in the construction industry we are completely infatuated by process. We focus on procurement and project management. We have flow charts for everthing from design management to procurement. Im not saying these are not required but sometimes this means we miss what we are actually doing.

What we overlook is the product. This is well down our priority list and sometimes forgotten.On time and on budget is our proud mantra! the fact that is does give the client what they want seems to be irrellivant.

All the individual parts of the process protect their own risk,be it design or construction but who takes responsibility for the product?

The designers will blame the contractor and revert to the contract if anything goes wrong. If there are issues with the building on completion the contractor will blame the consultants. This leaves the client not knowing where to get answers from and more importantly leaves them disgruntled with the process and the product.

Provided everyone sticks to this approach the individual parts will be ok. It is a cartell of mediocrity where everyone is protecting there part of the process without taking responsibility for the product. As soon as someone breaks from this circle it may change the thinking of the entire industry.

_space group are a relatively small organisation in term of the construction industry so we will always find it difficult to change the industry single handedly but we will put our money where our mouth is. We are developing a range of building products via our volula brand. we have spent time designing a range of building products including houses, lodges and schools at present. We put our energy into the product off site rather than process so that we can maximise value for the client. The proof of the pudding is in the eating but we are confident we can deliver a 3 bedroom house which has no energy bills for around £80,000.

This brings me onto how we define value. We are fascinated by two key performance indicators in our industry, cost and time. Both metrics are easy to measure. We even have a profession dedicated to measuring cost via our cost consultants or quantity surveyors depending on how old you are.

Value for a client is dependant on more than just cost and time. It will vary from client to client with some focussed on cost and time but what about lifecycle, energy, cost in use carbon or user satisfaction. All of these metrics are important and together will generate a true picture of value. As an industry we need to understand this more and be able to demonstrate the interrelationship between them all.

I would also change the way we approach design. I spent 7 years learning to be an architect. I was encouraged to believe that every building should be an award winner and I would be judged on my original thought and creativity. This is reinforced by the profile the RIBA give to the Stirlng Prize and many other award ceremonies across the profession.

At University we never discussed business or client needs. I am not saying we should lose the creative side of architectural education as I think it does give a great foundation for innovative thinking.However we must realise that the world we operate in is real and we need to be better prepared for what we face in the construction industry.

My favourite analogy to illustrate this is Formula 1. Formula 1 is the catwalk of the automotive industry and is where much of the research and development is carried out which will feed into the cars we all drive every da6. Not everyone in the car industry ends up being a Formulat 1 engineer. The vast majority will join Nissan or Ford and will not expect to design the next Ferrari.

In architecture we are producing hundreds of aspirational Formula 1 engineers every year who are ill prepared for the world of construction. We are taught that every client wants a brand new formula car every time. it needs to be designed from scratch and it is a dreadful crime to use last years engine even though it won the championship.

Whilst Zaha Hadid and a number of other UK architects have the opportunity to design Formula 1 cars on a daily basis the rest of us mere mortals have clients who want a reliable Audi A4. There is no shame in this and Audis are a fantastic lesson in engineering, value and reliability.

There is one final lesson we can learn from the automotive industry. They really understand the benefits of a true supply chain. We claim to understand and manage supply chains in our industry however they are more of a list of people we work with regularly. Main contractors have moved to sub contract as much work as possible to move risk downstream. This does reduce risk for the main contractor but makes a project even more contractural and removes the commitment to the end product and places the focus on process.

In the car industry they have truly joined up supply chains.For example surrounding the Nissan site in Sunderland there are dozen of suppliers to the main factory who have signed long term agreements based on mutual investment and reward. Nissan do not change their engine supplier every 6 month because someone else can provide one £50 cheaper. They understand value and not just cost.

By understating value they have been able to continually improve their product whilst also reducing cost. For the same money their customers were paying 20 years ago they now benefit from power assisted steering, air conditioning, electric windows etc etc. We are still delivering the same product in construction yet asking our clients to pay more.

The pressure of the recession has only demonstrated the reality of our supply chains across the construction industry. We have all heard the stories recently of the contractor who has extended the terms of their supply chain to 120 days. This is hardly an integrated approach and is only pushing the challenges further down the supply chain and is not using any innovation or fresh thinking.

15 years ago partnering was the answer to everything in the industry. At the time I was an advocate but now I realise it is a flawed concept. It relies on people and does not structue the industry in a way which will provide long term benefit. When partnering works there are many positive lessons to be learned however the issue is there is no commercial basis or infrastructure for investment.

A fundamental move away from process is required with more of a focus on product. we need to innovate and look at standardised approaches which are constantly improving. We do not need to design everything from scratch and should use the lessons learnt from previous projects. If it is taken to its extreme there could be standard building such as the volula range or as easily a mixture of components and modules.

In todays environment much of this is possible. The tools are there as are the fresh new minds to make it happen. We are thinking far more about digital solutions now and with the advent of Building Information Modelling there is no excuse not to collect the data.

As our clients start to understand BIM they will also start to ask more questions of us and we need to be able to show as a an industry that we are at least one step ahead if not 10!

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