Skanska’s Katy Dowding talks about skills, the need for higher productivity and for streamlined procurement processes
Building magazine is 180 years old this year. What lessons about the built environment should we take from the past?
Some of the most inspiring learnings we can take come from that group of Victorian philanthropic pioneers who genuinely tried to benefit wider society through their work, people who saw the value of an approach that combines profit with purpose in a meaningful way. They understood that when we invest in infrastructure, we create growth and improve the health and wealth of the whole nation.
The towns of Port Sunlight on Merseyside and Bournville in the West Midlands were built by Lever Brothers and the Cadbury family respectively, to provide high quality accommodation for employees. We can learn so much from those early benefactors. Another good example is the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which conducts, and funds research aimed at solving poverty in the UK.
RF Berg, who founded Skanska in 1887 certainly fits that mould. He fought for the introduction of public transport and the construction of owner-occupied homes. He also introduced voluntary pension and life-insurance schemes for his employees long before these were established in mainstream Swedish society. Skanska continues his work to this day through our purpose to build for a better society.
Who or what has had the most positive impact on construction in the past couple of decades?
There have been huge advances in health and safety on sites. It used to be a given that construction was inherently dangerous, and you only have to look at old footage, even as recently as the ‘70s and ‘80s to see why that was true. Nowadays, there’s far less acceptance of any risk to personal safety.
There have been huge advances in the regulatory framework surrounding health and safety in construction
Technology has played a significant role here. We have 360-degree cameras on most type of plant now, meaning that the simple site logistics are so much safer. Increasing mechanization means we don’t have as many musculoskeletal problems because people aren’t lifting 50 kg bags of cement and damaging themselves. There have been huge advances in the regulatory framework surrounding health and safety in construction which has driven many of these improvements.
What does the construction industry do well and why?
We’re very good at problem solving. We take things on that people might look at and say couldn’t be achieved. For example, at Outernet in central London, the Skanska team constructed the auditorium’s 400-tonne steel and concrete roof within the site’s basement which was incredibly challenging. In visual terms, it was like building a giant ship in a bottle.
We’re very good in a crisis as well. You have only got to look at the response during covid to see that. The world changed, and straightaway our industry adapted and restarted.
What does construction industry do badly and why?
We might be good at problem solving, but we invent everything from scratch and don’t store or share our knowledge properly. We’re slow to embrace innovation because we’re quite risk averse. Of course, there are very good reasons for this, but we’re not set up to make the most of innovations and take risks with new products or new ways of doing things.
We might be good at problem solving, but we invent everything from scratch and don’t store or share our knowledge properly
Also, we need to plan for productivity because there are so many inefficiencies in how we operate. There’s lot of unproductive time and a lot of barriers to operating productively because we don’t think about productivity early enough. We need to build this thinking into the planning stages and design for productivity, so we can measure and analyse productivity in the project environment and look for improvements to feed into future projects.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen during your career in construction?
I’ve been in the sector for 33 years now and have just celebrated 20 years with Skanska, so it’s fair to say I have witnessed quite a few changes!
It’s been heartening to see improvements in diversity, but it’s not been at the rate that I would have hoped or expected. And there’s no single silver bullet to solving it either.
Partly, it’s about changing mindset about how we promote the industry. Instead of talking to young people who are doing their A levels or just leaving university, we need to be talking to primary school children about careers in construction.
We need to attract the brightest and best and we’re competing against sectors like law, finance and medicine. Those people could well think that construction is too dirty and dangerous for them. An engineer might have the choice of going into construction or working for a Formula 1 team - and that’s a tough challenge for our sector.
The way builders are portrayed in dramas also makes me laugh. They’re always dodgy, doing cash-in-hand jobs or a murderer or gangster! You don’t see construction people portrayed as respectable, with successful careers and working in nice surroundings. People think it’s still like Auf Weidersein Pet, but we don’t all sleep on bunks in Nissen huts.
So, I think overall it’s fair to say that we have something of an image problem!
What do you think will have changed by the time Building celebrates its 200th anniversary?
Energy infrastructure will change dramatically in the next few years, whether that is to wind, nuclear, wave power or microgeneration.
We’ll also see a lot less labour on site, due to increased use of offsite manufacturing and robotization on our projects.
Last year, as part of our involvement with Innovate UK, we trialled the Collaborative On-Site Construction Robot at the Featherstone project in central London. This can deliver construction activities that may otherwise be repetitive or potentially hazardous, such as drilling at height. The robot has onboard sensors, as well as maps derived directly from BIM data, to navigate itself safely around the site and perform tasks that have been scheduled by the user. These types of robots will become much more commonplace in years to come.
If there is one thing individuals and firms could do to improve construction and the built environment what would it be?
We need to get serious on the issue of carbon and face up to the fact that construction is one of the most carbon intensive sectors. The level of opposition to the proposed demolition of the old M&S building on Oxford Street demonstrates that the public is increasingly taking the view that pulling down old buildings and building from scratch is not always the right approach. We need to take this kind of feedback on board and look to refurbish more buildings where possible.
Production of cement currently accounts for around seven per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions, so we also need to do more research on low carbon reinforced concrete. Skanska has achieved impressive results on the M42 Junction 6 improvement scheme with a low carbon concrete reinforced with basalt fibre.
What is the best thing government can do to support the industry?
We need a more streamlined procurement process which will allow more collaborative forms of contracting. Hugely complex, multiple-stage tendering processes keep people in competition for too long, whereas it would be better to move earlier to a collaborative approach.
Earlier contractor involvement in the procurement process creates opportunities for innovation
Earlier contractor involvement in the procurement process creates opportunities for innovation. If we’re not brought in until after the design is mature, our ability to deliver new ideas and better ways of doing things is quite restricted. If we get involved earlier, we can look for those efficiencies, we can look for those productivity improvements, low carbon solutions and safer solutions. But we need to be in earlier.
What do you hope the Building the Future Commission can achieve? And what role can you play?
The commission has the potential to deliver something that will benefit the industry and effect genuine change for many years to come. The role I can play in it is to ensure that the outputs are tangible and with real teeth to ensure widespread adoption. I don’t want it to stay as an academic exercise it needs to be embedded in reality and I can assist with this process.
What is your favourite building/piece of infrastructure and why?
That’s an easy one. It’s the Oresund Bridge, a five-mile road and rail bridge built by Skanska connecting Denmark and Sweden, which opened in July 2000.
I love everything about it. It’s an amazing piece of engineering, it looks incredible, it has added huge value to nearby communities, and it physically connects two countries. It has also enhanced the biodiversity of the area because its underwater parts have become covered in marine organisms and act as an artificial reef.
I’ve been under it and over it many times, and its sheer scale and beauty never fails to astonish me.
Tell us one thing you are passionate about outside of work
Many things. I’m a passionate eater, theatre goer, and long-distance walker, among others. One of my ambitions is to walk the South West Coast path which runs 900 miles from Minehead in Somerset all the way around to Swanage in Dorset.
The longest walk I’ve done was along the Ridgeway in Wiltshire when we were raising money for deaf people. It was 52 miles nonstop, so we walked for 22 hours from two o’clock in the afternoon and finished at midday the next day in Bath. I needed a foot massage at the end of that one!
Katy Dowding, executive vice president, Skanska
The Building the Future Commission is a year-long project, launched to mark Building’s 180th anniversary, to assess potential solutions and radical new ways of thinking to improve the built environment.
It is being guided by a panel of 19 experts who have signed up to help shape the commission’s work, this will culminate in a report setting out recommendations for industry and government.
The project is looking at proposals for change in eight areas:
- Education and skills
- Housing and planning
- Building safety
- Project delivery and digital
- Workplace culture and leadership
- Creating communities
We want to hear your ideas and views, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.