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What are the drivers of the construction revolution? Are they for real?

In my last article I asked whether construction would modernise, die or stay roughly the same. Looking back into recent history suggested that it was likely the status quo would prevail, and many posters shared that sentiment. But are the drivers for change this time around irresistible? Do they create an unstoppable momentum or are they ephemeral?

People often confuse drivers and enablers, especially in construction. People tell me all the time that BIM is a driver of change, for example, when in fact it is a very important enabler. Drivers are the forces that compel change to happen. BIM is very likely one of the ways in which that change will take place.

In no particular order, I contend the most important of these at present are:

  1. The Housing Crisis, reflecting the fact that there is chronic under-supply of homes, especially affordable homes, where demand is highest. There is some degree of political consensus that the market is broken, but little agreement on how it could be repaired. However even the moderate right now accepts the need for state intervention to challenge the status of quo of speculative development if we are to get anyway near the need for 300,000 new homes per year. For a brilliant insight in to this, see Shelter’s New Civic Housebuilding campaign.
  2. The Crisis in Consumer and Client Confidence: customer trust has been eroded and the current reputation of the construction industry is mixed. There is a widely held view that the sector does not deliver a high-quality product but instead races to the bottom to protect profit margin / secure the available subsidy. Recent examples include the failures of external wall insulation projects that led to the setting up of the Each Home Counts Review. Most starkly of all, The Grenfell Tower fire has led to profound questions about the Building Regulations and the validity of product certification and standards – both of which are designed to protect the consumer from unsafe practices. No single event in the recent past has resulted in such deep reflection on the modus operandi of construction and the underpinning culture of the industry and its clients.
  3. The Macro Politico-Economic Crisis: high-level external factors in the UK and globally. The rise of reactionary politics at the expense of centerist, neo-Liberal orthodoxy charatecterised by Brexit and Trump on the one hand, Corbyn and Saunders on the other. A deep-seated distruct of the political establishment, compounded by prolonged austerity and increasing distaste for private-sector involvement in public services. Modest growth in the wider economy, and the certainty that construction is always the hardest hit of any sector in a downturn, leading to a lack of investor confidence.
  4. The Supply Chain Crisis: social, political and, especially, economic factors impacting upon the construction sector itself. This includes but is not limited to the perilous position of several major players, and of course the recent collapse of Carillion. This puts at risk the entire supply chain, who have a significant addiction to the main-contractor model whatever its flaws and imperfections. There is a perceived danger of the marketplace as we know it imploding, and no obvious alternative business model to replace it.
  5. The Carbon Crisis – the UK’s failure to keep pace with legal targets for cutting C02 emissions. See also rising levels of fuel poverty, and a return to price controls on energy prices not seen since the 1970s. Furthermore, our failure to improve the environments in which we live and work to improve our health and well-being, putting increased pressure on the health and social care sectors. This includes a very significant elephant in the room – namely that we do not have a national strategy to retrofit our creaking, leaking building stock and that climate change cannot be adequately controlled unless this is addressed.
  6. The Skills Crisis – as described in Mark Farmer’s Modernise of Die Report. More people are leaving the industry every year than are joining it, leaving employers without access to to the skilled professionals and trades it needs to respond to the challenges of modern construction. Brexit will exacerbate this. The workforce is aging, and the sector is not considered an attractive career option for those with options. Many are not appropriately skilled for an era of digital, low carbon building and our system of construction education is not adequately addressing this.

When contrasted with the relatively benign economic and political context that provided the backdrop to the Egan and Latham Reviews, it is perfectly obvious that the drivers are more dynamic now. In fact they are arguably more dynamic than at any time in recent history, arguably since 1951. This means we may have a moment here. Actually, if we don’t we may as well give up on progressive forces in construction and accept the status quo.

In the run up to Build:Revolution East Midlands (26th April, Nottingham,www.buildrevolution.co.uk) we will examine the enablers of and barriers to change. But let’s start the debate now. Do you think I have listed all the key drivers? What are the others I may have missed? Do you believe they will drive the change agenda onwards? If so, when would you expect it start? And when would you expect it to start making a difference to what we build, how we build it and how we use it?

client confidence, consumer confidence, housing, housing crisis, skills, supply chain

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