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Construction is a thing of the past

Posted: 23rd February 2022

Terry Watts


Chartered Surveyors Training Trust (CSTT)

A bit of a damming statement perhaps from a former Managing Director of the CIOB? But I do strongly believe that the future of the sector lies in the Built Environment, the sector that actually creates the world around us; the very fabric of our society.

I covered the lack of awareness of the exciting career opportunities in the sector in my previous blog. In this piece I call for leadership to not “just” change the image of the sector but to reform how it operates. Are we brave enough? Or will we wait for market forces or the government to force us?

The future of the Built Environment is fast becoming everyone’s business. It always should have been, we all live in it, but it is predominantly a vehicle for investment, focussed on return on capital with prices inflated and costs squeezed such that some make huge margins, while other teeter on the brink of insolvency. As well as providing our personal nest eggs and homes, investment in the built environment funds our pensions so we should all be engaged. Increasingly however the impact on the natural environment, and the “wellness” of society (to pick two focus areas) have come to the fore. We need to prepare for large scale change!

We make much of the impact of technology on business and everyday life, but there is little appreciation that the Built Environment is arguably even more important to our lives than technology. In fact the two overlap, yes technology is having an increasing impact in the Built Environment. Where we live, the quality of our homes, the layout of our streets, the impact our part of the Built Environment has on the wider environment, all these aspects have a massive impact on us as individuals and on our communities. We are only now appreciating that, as well as being an investment vehicle, the Built Environment is fundamental to our health, happiness, feelings of security and belonging, personally as well as communally. If you want confirmation look at the The Construction Playbook or Value Toolkit.

The sector is going through dramatic transformation, somewhat reluctantly, as the requirements of society and technological innovation overtake capability, and the sector is slowly waking up to the demands of the ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) agenda. On top of that global trends such as the increasing numbers of people moving from rural to urban settings, the greater impact technology is having on every aspect of our lives, and as awareness of the importance of environmental change increases, society is asking more from its Built Environment, a sector responsible for 42% of all greenhouse gases.

These disruptive forces demand a redefinition of the sector to encompass the new, exciting opportunities to address the demands of 21st century society.

So here are a few challenges we need to face up to in our sector:

  • Stop talking Construction, and talk the Built Environment, recognising the far reaching, diverse opportunity and impact
  • Embrace the ESG agenda as more than the latest tick list requirement but a far reaching movement that will redefine your business and the contracts that drive the sector
  • Tackle the poor quality homes we expect the public to accept, and adopt alternative ways of building homes. This means embracing new techniques and technology, transparency and accountability – stop building new homes with no solar panels!
  • Stop questionable practices such “Main Contractor Discounts” and the mis-used term “value engineering” and start talking about 4 capitals and social value, not just ticking boxes

Who is going to take the lead? Civil servants are trying, but there is no meaningful governmental focus, beyond rhetoric and grand gestures; how many housing ministers have we had?

There are no big companies in the sector (like Nissan, Tesco, Amazon, Google) employing 100,000s who can influence change. The largest in our sector employ around 20,000 people in a sector of 3.2M people. Most of our companies don’t embrace change, or welcome innovation and have no in-house function to adapt their practice so they fight to maintain the status quo.

Is it impossible? I’m an optimist, so I believe it is possible. Funders, have a relentless focus on ESG that will take time to change the “value engineer the cost to maximise profits” prevailing ethos. Plus there is an emerging realisation that funders can’t let construction turn ESG into another outsourced tick box exercise as investors care about the ethical status of their funds, so the sector will have to embrace changes.

Is there a role for professionals? At the CIOB I was struck by the trustees and members who felt it personally when their sector was found lacking; walls falling down in schools, exposés on poor housebuilding, excess profits and of course fire safety. I believe those to be the majority of professionals I met at the CIOB, and they would agree that professionals must be held to account, and be recognised for calling out substandard, even dangerous practice. Surely the professions are the moral compass for a sector? I hope they will be for the Built Environment.

Finally, typically the sector will follow, do as it is told and do just enough. Eventually more regulation will come, and the sector will be forced to follow. How about our professions take the lead and redefine the future of our sector?

Terry Watts


Chartered Surveyors Training Trust (CSTT)

Terry Watts is the CEO of the Chartered Surveyors Training Trust.