#UKCW2018: Our reaction to UK Construction Week 2018

UK Construction Week (9-11 October) has been held at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC), Birmingham, for four years – bringing together 35,000 construction professionals from all over the world to discuss challenges, successes and the future of the industry in Britain. Jo Jones, associate director at our Birmingham office, takes over the blog this week to share her thoughts on some of the seminars which took place over the course of the three days.

This was our first year at UK Construction Week; I found it was a great opportunity to network, learn from – and share knowledge with – our partners in the industry and hear from a range of high profile and experienced speakers. I also noticed there were a number of students and schools attending the conference, particularly on the second day. This was great to see and hopefully the expo was used as a good yard stick for showcasing just how many different sectors there are in the construction industry and the diverse range of careers available to our young peers.

There were a number of themes this year that stood out in the panel discussions, including:

Collaboration is key

The positives of collaborative working were discussed during the expo and one main theme was the idea of cross-company collaboration. It was widely discussed that more investment into research and development (R&D) is required and, in order to succeed and for us to move forward, we need to learn to work together more efficiently and invest in R&D for the good of the industry.

The word ‘fragmentation’ was used a lot to describe how, unlike a lot of manufacturing industries, we’re an industry that comprises a lot of very separate entities and, in order to address the skills crisis and to appropriately equip ourselves in an increasingly digitised world, we need to work together and share our findings.

I agree that the digital side of construction has moved on considerably more than the industry itself. standardisation was batted around in the seminar but as we build so many one-off projects, it’s not always easy for us to adopt that approach.

The importance of collaborating better – and earlier – with the supply chain was also discussed at a number of panels. Incorporating the supply chain into the design process at an earlier stage was an idea repeated across the three days. In the aftermath of Grenfell, it was also argued that we need to readdress the traditional ‘design and build’ model, moving our focus to a more collaborative and quality-driven process.

Nigel Ostime – delivery director at Hawkins Brown – agreed that ‘design and build’ has negative connotations and, during the Housing Forum: Stopping Building Failures seminar, he promoted following a ‘modern method of construction’, focussing our energy on developing offsite construction techniques. Which leads me on to the second main theme…

Digital opportunities – the future is now 

The declining productivity in the construction industry is no secret and a number of solutions to this issue were discussed, but one of the main resolutions to addressing this decline was to better utilise the digital opportunities available to us.

The industry has so many incredible digital developments – from concrete sensors to robot bricklayers (semi automated masons – SAM) – that we’re not using to their full potential.
At the Digital Future of Construction seminar, David Clark – head of manufacturing and innovation at The McAvoy Group – and Mark Bew – chairman at PCSG / BIM Task Group – were of the opinion that a lot of companies are hesitant to invest and try this new technology. They agree that yes, it is expensive, and yes, it will mean retraining some of a company’s workforce, but in the long-term it will mean that we have a workforce that’s better equipped to deal with a global digital revolution.

Digital opportunities were cited as the answer to a lot of the construction industries issues – and I can’t help but agree. I believe educating the next generation with new technology could be the key to promoting generational change and attracting younger peers back into the industry. The digital world would create awareness and improve how data is managed, while also allowing the construction industry to evolve. However, I believe the financial outlay of new technology, to train existing staff coupled with a hesitancy to try something new, is a major sticking point. Construction is a very traditional industry, however it is slowly getting better at being more adventurous.

Diversity

Lack of diversity in the construction industry has been a hot topic for a while but, ever since the release of companies’ gender pay gap figures in March, it has increased traction and we’re seeing real progress across the sector.

Mark Lomas, head of equality, diversity and inclusion at High Speed Rail 2 (HS2), made an interesting point – which is that now, people are scared to ask questions for fear of offending anyone or ‘getting it wrong’ when it comes to diversity. However, he urged us that, in order to create a diverse, creative and productive workforce we need to ask questions and not be afraid to ‘get it wrong’ and to move away from the mindset of ‘hiring people who look like me’.

Some 27% of women say they have been discouraged from entering the construction industry, with only 8% entering via an apprenticeship route. The good news is that 72% of women aspire to get into more senior roles.

Barbara Res – who has worked in construction and development for almost 40 years, most notably as the executive in charge of building the world-famous Trump Tower – was bought onto the main stage to talk primarily about her initial difficulties as a woman in the industry in the 1970s – back when construction was even more of a male environment than it is today.

She spoke to the audience about how she was talked into design engineering by friends, but had no real idea of what it was. She eventually picked electrical engineering as a choice, much to the delight of the students at her Harlem school because they considered her the “minority student attaining and achieving”.

At BSD, we’re keen to encourage more women into the industry (take a look at some of our previous blogs on the subject) but I do worry that we can be too fond of highlighting the negatives as opposed to the many positives, which may put off future generations of female engineers. Everyone can face diversities in all areas of their life – it’s how we deal with them that counts.

By finding role models – or indeed acting as our own cheerleaders for the industry – we can relate to, we can make it easier for others to identify with challenges, in turn providing reassurance to those who can go on to succeed in their chosen career.

Gender aside, I think the construction industry is still pigeon holed into the stereotype of high vis jackets, brick and dirty work when the reality is, as seen at UK Construction Week, there are literally hundreds of different career opportunities for the next generation and even for those looking to change their career path. I did it at aged 35!

Sustainability
Charu Gupta, one of our energy and sustainability engineers, also attended UK Construction Week and listened to some insightful discussions surrounding sustainability. These seminars discussed and asked questions around:

• Overheating in apartments – will this mean reviewing Part L (building regulations) or Part F (which looks at ventilation)?
• Low carbon heating systems in new homes
• EPBP (Energy Part Building Directive)
• Clean growth strategy – it’s predicted that this will lead to more aggressive changes in the industry over the next decade, a prime example of this being the ‘clean air zone’ in Birmingham city centre whereby any pre-2016 cars could be subject to charges of up to £12 per day to drive in designated zones. Will businesses employ an electric car pool strategy? Will public transport be improved to accommodate this?

The ‘B’ word: Brexit

As you would expect, Brexit was a heavily discussed topic throughout the expo. Panellists – who ranged from MP Lord David Blunkett to Aaron Reid, head of sustainable procurement at Balfour Beatty – certainly framed it as an opportunity rather than a negative omen shrouded in doom and gloom.
Despite probing questions from audience members on subjects including British standards vs EU standards, speakers remained positive and discussed how Britain leaving the EU is a chance for the industry to learn from its experiences and create our own, bespoke rules, get to grips with the skills shortage and use the UK’s cities’ new, devolved powers to our advantage.