Simon Tolson discusses the importance of good design, maintaining skills and his passion for energy and tech innovation

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Building magazine is 180 years old this year. What lessons about the built environment should we take from the past?

Maintaining skills and recording knowhow so we do not repeat building mistakes of the past.

For the end user/client appreciate the technicalities of altering existing structures, the complexity of updating/upgrading a building to contemporary standards and the challenges of spatial planning within an existing building’s constraints.

Not over selling and not under imagining the possible.

Who or what has had the most positive impact on construction in the past couple of decades?

The increasing quality of good design in the city scape. London in particular over the last 20 years and Manchester and Birmingham too in the last 10.

As in people, Rem Koolhaas as an architect is a genius. His architecture explores the frontiers between humanity (the client) and technology, with each design adapted to the needs of the client and the local environment. I am also I am a fan of the late Zaha Hadid as her beautiful buildings and floaty shapes always leave our mouths open, as if to say, “Wow did she design that?”. Pity not more of it built.

Renzo Piano and inter alia his Shard!


Simon Tolson, senior partner at Fenwick Elliott

What does the construction industry do well and why?

Accept challenges – ready to say yes I can, sometimes too readily! It has got so much better at site health and safety.

What does construction industry do badly and why?

Pricing risk, coping with novel design and building systems, embracing technology and investing in R&D.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen during your career in construction?

Increasingly better design at the high end and some filtering down. Safer building sites and less injury. More women in workforce.

No one smoking nor ashtrays full of fag ends in site meetings. The better recognition of the ‘intelligent client’ with wants and needs.

What do you think will have changed by the time Building celebrates its 200th anniversary?

Great advance in imaging technology and VR to plan and ‘what if’.

A rich golden thread of rich digital data on the built environment.

Far better lessons learnt from root cause analysis reviews on failures.

Advances in building materials that are far more efficient and recyclable.

Nuclear fusion will happen at scale and in fission SMRs will be deployed and thereby mark true base load stability …a return to the vision of cheap electricity hailed in the 1960s with nuclear fission.

If there is one thing individuals and firms could do to improve construction and the built environment what would it be?

Be fussy about what you want and how and listen.

What is the best thing government can do to support the industry?

Understand infrastructure resilience and address how best to avoid aversity, without this in power and transmission the nation grinds to a halt.

Embrace interconnected infrastructure in transportation, generation, transmission and telecommunication and computation, water and waste-management. Heighten governmental awareness of the interconnectedness of dynamic human, technological and natural (ecological) systems to each other.

Encourage training at every level in the construction, engineering and allied industries. 

What do you hope the Building the Future Commission can achieve? And what role can you play?

Be an agent for and catalyse change, spotlight the future, a better one. Not unlike the run up to 1951 Festival of Britain. themed on design, science and innovation.

Via my energy and enthusiasm focus on my interest areas below and report and find what is happening:

  • Low carbon tech, retrofitting and cut and carve and adaptation / regenerative design concepts.
  • New safety legislation, factoring new statutorily imposed costs and risk.
  • Long-term strategic planning for power.
  • Address the biggest challenge of uprating existing building stock to protect from cold and shield from heat.

What is your favourite building/piece of infrastructure and why?

From the ancient world, the Colosseum in Rome as it was so architecturally clever, the elliptical architecture of an amphitheatre is meant to facilitate visibility from every seat in the arena and 36 trap doors, which were used to make impressive and sudden entry of animals, gladiators, and scenery and two-level underground network of corridors and cells. A free standing structure.

From the modern world the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Guggenheim Museum in NY.

 Tell us one thing you are passionate about outside of work.

 Energy and related tech innovation.

Simon Tolson, senior partner, Fenwick Elliott 

Building the Future Commission 


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.

The major project’s work will be guided by a panel of 19 major figures who have signed up to help guide the commission’s work culminatuing  culminate in a report published at the end of the year.

The final line-up of commissioners includes figures from the world of contracting, housing development, architecture, policy-making, skills, design, place-making, infrastructure, consultancy and legal.

The commissioners include Lord Kerslake, former head of the civil service, Katy Dowding, executive vice president at Skanska, Richard Steer, chair of Gleeds, Lara Oyedele, president of the Chartered Institute of Housing, Mark Wild, former boss of Crossrail and chief executive of SGN and Simon Tolson, senior partner at Fenwick Elliott. See the full list here.

The project is looking at proposals for change in eight areas:

>> Editor’s view: And now for something completely positive - our Building the Future Commission

>> Click here for more about the project and the commissioners

Building the Future will also undertake a countrywide tour of roundtable discussions with experts around the regions as part of a consultation programme in partnership with the regional arms of industry body Constructing Excellence. It will also set up a young person’s advisory panel.

We will also be setting up an ideas hub and we want to hear your views.

>> Email  to get in touch