Can cross-disciplinary courses help engender collaborative working and greater levels of professional competence? Ben Flatman finds out
For decades the construction industry has been told that it needs to build a collaborative culture that promotes cross-disciplinary working, with a shared understanding of mutual obligations and responsibilities. A siloed industry in which consultants, contractors and suppliers either do not understand what each other do – or at worst wilfully disdain each other’s roles – is a recipe for inefficiency and significantly increases the potential for poor quality construction.
Sir Michael Latham’s 1994 report Constructing the Team set out a number of recommendations to improve collaborative working and productivity. Many of those recommendations have led to tangible improvements.
These include the adoption of better project information coordination through BIM, and steps towards new models of training for young people entering the industry. Few however would claim that all the issues have been resolved.
“Previous reports on the construction industry have either been implemented incompletely, or the problems have persisted. The opportunity which exists now must not be missed.” (Latham, chapter 1, paragraph 1.10)
What the Grenfell fire exposed was in fact an unpretty picture of a fragmented industry, still a long way from Latham’s vision of a united team. Badly designed procurement routes, ineffectual regulation and a prevailing sense of confusion around overall responsibilities left consultants and contractors continuing to operate in what felt like the perpetually shifting sands of British construction.
So what can be done to break the cycle and create a new model for professional practice across the industry? Solutions are needed at all levels, but few can doubt that education and training has a huge role to play in changing the narrative and fostering truly interdisciplinary ways of working.
A number of changes already underway in industry are helping to create an environment in which the education sector can experiment with new models of delivery. Firstly, the government has developed a serious interest in apprenticeships and technical skills.
The closure of the polytechnics from 1992 onwards is now widely seen as having been a mistake – one which undermined the status and availability of high-quality vocational training in the UK. New apprenticeships and apprenticeship degrees are helping to bridge the gap.
A further, long-awaited change, is the Architects Registration Board’s (ARB) recently proposed education reforms. These seek to open up more flexible routes into architecture, by doing away with the requirement for an undergraduate degree in architecture and freeing up educational providers to offer a diverse range of on-the-job as well as more traditional education routes.
Critically, it means that students will be able to pursue cross-disciplinary courses at the start of their tertiary education. Some will then take these skills into architectural practice, while others will take their architectural training into other parts of the industry, whether it be construction, surveying or engineering.
The introduction of T-levels as an alternative to A-levels is also an indication of the changing educational and vocational landscape. The T-level in design, surveying and planning for construction is intended as an equivalent to studying three A-levels and includes 45 days of work placements.
The CIOB’s view
Rosalind Thorpe is director of education and standards at the CIOB and believes there are promising signs of a move towards more interdisciplinary construction courses. But she acknowledges that “architecture may be slow to catch up with that”.
She points to the University of Wolverhampton’s Springfield Campus, which brings architecture into a built environment school that includes surveying, engineering and construction management.
“There are a lot of interdisciplinary courses now,” she says. “It’s common that many courses have the same first-year modules.”
She believes construction training in general needs to get better at educating what building safety is about. “There is lots on site safety,” she says, “but very little on building safety.”
Thorpe says there has historically been some resistance to bringing architecture into a multidisciplinary environment – as well as practical reasons why architecture sits in a different faculty from the other construction disciplines. But she isn’t singling out architecture – “the whole industry needs to change – we need to think about the end user more,” she says.
In what looks like an acknowledgement of the limitations of any taught course, she highlights the difference between experience and competence. “Industry has conflated qualifications with competence,” she says. “The industry needs to understand what is competence and what isn’t.”
She believes that practical experience and mentoring are the key. “In the context of the professions, you need a mentoring programme that brings graduates to a certain level of competence.”
Unlike some who question the validity of the idea of the “professions” as an outdated and elitist 19th-century model, she believes that construction needs to become more professionalised. “We need to make that transition to becoming a professional industry. All your managers should be working towards a professional qualification.”
At the same time, she believes that professional qualifications are only part of the jigsaw: “Some people say a qualification is a competence, but it isn’t.”
Thorpe describes how in construction “lots of people are highly qualified, highly experienced, but highly incompetent”. The critical extra element is hard to quantify.
She believes mentoring can also help to bridge the gap between the “qualified” professional and a truly competent practitioner: “You can’t measure competence through qualifications or experience – it also involves behaviour.”
The challenge for industry and educators remains how best to train a new generation of professionals who understand how each other work, and approach their role as a team player. Exposing students and trainees to the full range of careers within construction could help to foster that mutual understanding, especially if accompanied by committed mentoring from experienced professionals.
One course that has already been paving the way in terms of training a new generation of construction industry professionals is PlanBEE (the BEE stands for Built Environment Education), run by Gateshead College. The idea was initiated by Peter Buchan, a fellow, and Mark Thompson, managing partner of Ryder Architecture, a global practice which was founded in the North-east in 1953.
Launched in 2016, PlanBEE was created to foster a new collaborative approach in the industry, and help to keep talent in the region. Buchan, was deeply influenced by Ryder’s founding partners, who instilled in the firm a cross-disciplinary ethos and commitment to the social purpose of architecture.
PlanBEE is a higher apprenticeship training scheme that aims to provide young people with real work experience in a wide variety of workplaces. Peter Barker, a current partner at Ryder who has played a key role in PlanBEE since the start, says: “Education had become very siloed, with architects some of the biggest culprits.”
Aimed at 18-year-old school leavers, the PlanBEE programme runs over a two-year period and offers a series of six work placements of four months each. Raju Noor, curriculum leader on the course, says “students should understand industry better to foster a more collaborative approach”.
Students typically get exposure to architecture, civil and services engineering, quantity surveying and construction management. They spend four days a week at work and one day in a more conventional educational environment. They earn money from day one and are employed productively on real projects.
The sponsor’s view
Westley Robinson is a work and skills specialist within the growth and development directorate at Manchester City Council (MCC). The council approached Gateshead College to expand PlanBEE in Manchester.
The council places planning conditions on all its major projects that require developers and contractors to engage local apprentices and also works closely with industry and the CITB to understand what employers need in terms of skills.
Robinson says that the council and local construction industry were noticing that the people coming out of both traditional apprenticeships and degree programmes were arriving in employment without much site experience. “They were gaining qualifications without insight into what the job might be. By the time they got to us they needed retraining,” he says.
He sees the value of PlanBEE in being to “give them a flavour of the industry so they can make informed career decisions”. He believes that as a consequence PlanBEE students come out “more likely to stick at it” when it comes to a career in construction. “Whatever sector they go into, everyone benefits.”
PlanBEE is attracting students who might have not considered university appropriate for them, and perhaps would not traditionally have considered construction either. Mentorship is crucial to the programme and in Manchester these come from the sponsors, who include MCC itself, Ryder and Eric Wright Group.
Guaranteeing a certain salary level was critical for MCC. “We’re only working with certain employers who’d pay a certain salary,” says Westley. Everyone gets the living wage for their age group, which is around £23,000 per annum from year one. The students “are doing real project work” he adds.
In a key difference from other work placement schemes, the companies, or “sponsors” backing PlanBEE do not employ the students directly. Instead, Gateshead College has set up the North East Apprenticeship Company (NEAC) as the employer.
The shell company invoices the sponsoring firms for the time worked by the students, who are then in turn paid centrally by NEAC. This model helps smooth out a lot of the HR issues that beset other programmes.
PlanBEE is also about attracting “under-represented and under-privileged groups to the industry,” says Barker. And Noor says the scheme is an attractive alternative to university for the many young people who feel they want exposure to the workplace rather than another three years of full-time education.
“This course gives them a holistic view of careers in construction,” says Noor, highlighting the way in which it opens young minds to the full breadth of opportunity within the industry.
PlanBEE delivers a Level 4 HNC in design, construction and management, as well as a Level 5 HND qualification. Most of the students start off saying they want to be architects, but by the end of the two years many have decided on careers in other fields within the industry.
Crucially, almost all of them remain in construction. 98% of students go on to work for one of the sponsoring companies, or elsewhere in construction – a stark contrast with many other construction and built environment related courses where students often end up walking away.
Much of the industry has a poor record of engaging with universities on course content, and universities have been slow to react to a changing world. PlanBEE is industry-initiated, specifically to address this gap.
Digital design and coordination is at the core of the learning, so students become extremely proficient in a range of software. The course develops BIM skills to a high level with support from industry partner, the BIM Academy (another programme initiated by Ryder).
The PlanBEE board member and programme mentor
Anjana Raj is social value lead at Sir Robert McAlpine (SRM). She is on the PlanBEE board and also mentors students on the scheme. Originally a software engineer who transitioned into construction, she says “If I could do my learning again, I would do PlanBEE”.
Working for one of the UK’s biggest contractors, she is well aware that there is a “skills gap in the market,” and believes programmes like PlanBEE have a crucial role to play in filling it: “The experience the PlanBEE students get, means people coming out with a greater understanding and appreciation of multi-disciplinary roles - understanding design, structural engineering, architecture, quantity surveying, construction site management and M&E.”
SRM was one of the founding partners and a sponsor of PlanBEE. “It has been quite an eye opener to see the collaborative working. It’s been brilliant, reinforcing the need for our industry to be more coordinated,” she says. “After two years the students have got so much experience and a holistic approach of the built environment. It allows them to be industry collaborators themselves” she adds.
While a huge enthusiast for the programme, Raj sees scope for continuous improvement. “The curriculum is constantly evolving year on year to include Net Zero Carbon, Green Skills, and retrofit,” she says. And she has no doubt of PlanBEE’s ability to meet new challenges, partly due to the course being employer-led.
Raj also says that part of her role as a PlanBEE board member is to work with universities and other training bodies to “educate the educators and challenge unconscious bias on what construction is about”.
She would like to see the scheme become a model for construction training: “I hope it will become part of mainstream education. It’s small numbers. I just hope one day government will recognise programmes like this and them available to all.”
On the mentoring programme, Raj says “it’s about nurturing the individual so that they can work towards their own personal goals and choose the right path for them. And it’s also about talent retention within the north-east”.
Gateshead College is also working on the introduction of the T-Level in Design, Surveying and Planning for Construction. “PlanBEE would compliment T-Levels” says Noor. He sees PlanBEE as a potential next step for those moving on from Level 3 (e.g. A-Levels and T-Levels) in their education, but who are unsure about which career path to pursue and want more workplace exerience before making a career decision.
Noor also highlights the open-ended nature of the PlanBEE programme as one of its key strengths and an important differentiator with a university degree, where students are required to commit for three years to a route they may regret having chosen. By offering a diverse range of placements and experiences, the students not only build an invaluable understanding of how the sector works across disciplines, but are left completely free to go in the direction that best suits them.
“A lot of students find themselves… when they’ve experienced other roles they’ve never heard of,” says Noor.
Crucially the scheme is constantly evolving in response to employers’ and students’ needs and feedback. “Industry wants us to break down those barriers” says Noor, before adding: “It changes attitudes in the sector when students think differently and are exposed to other sectors from the start.”
Barker says: “We feel passionately that we want to grow this programme.” PlanBEE has already launched in Manchester, where they were invited to set up by the city council, and they are in discussions with potential partners in Liverpool. There is even an affiliate programme in Vancouver, where Ryder also has an office. The London School of Architecture, Ryder Architecture and Gateshead College are actively working in partnership towards the proposed expansion of the PlanBEE programme in London and are seeking support from like minded built environment businesses to sponsor apprentices and achieve a launch this September.
Barker says part of the evolution of the course is ensuring that “the pathway beyond PlanBEE is as well mapped out as it could be.” Many students do proceed to further study and training, including to university degrees and apprenticeship degrees, with the PlanBEE qualification often enabling them to enter the second or even third year of other courses.
“It’s incredible how their aspirations change as they grow and mature,” says Barker.
One of the ambitions is to look at ways to develop a Level 6 architectural degree apprenticeship. “It’s a very beneficial time to be having these discussions,” says Barker in light of ARB’s recent proposals,“but we want to connect with other education pathways – not just architecture.”
As the industry looks towards an uncertain economic and regulatory future, it is becoming ever more critical that the workforce has the skills to learn and adapt continually throughout their careers. Courses like PlanBEE might not only help attract and retain more of the talented young people that construction desperately needs, but could deliver a workforce that finally lives up to Latham’s promise of a competent team that shares a common goal – quality construction for the end user.
An expert view
Neal Shasore, head of school and chief executive, London School of Architecture, and a Building the Future commissioner
The Edge Commission’s Morrell Report, Collaboration for Change (2015, 2020) makes explicit reference to the “siloed nature of the built environment’s education system”, and the need for cross-disciplinary review. Judith Hackitt’s prefatory remarks in Building a Safer Future decry the “system failure” that contributed to the tragic fire at Grenfell.
Though education and training did not sit within the remit of the Hackitt review, learning providers across the sector might have reflected more on the issue of a lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities, the lack of accountability and fragmentation within the industry – surely a joined-up approach is what is needed?
But these siloes are enduring: within the world of architecture, education and training is currently a hot topic – the ARB is proposing to accredit programmes from post-graduate level, forgoing oversite of undergraduate or Level 6 provision. This has been partly to promote alternative routes of entry into the profession.
But what perhaps has been missed is the opportunity to open up discussion about a common educational framework across the construction industry and built environment sector.
The reasons for joined-up action are simple and interlinked: inequity and climate emergency. We need equitable, affordable and diverse routes through formal education and across the careerspan – there should be greater freedom to retrain and specialise according to opportunity and need. And we need higher levels of climate literacy throughout the sector.
Principles of circular economy, promotion of biodiversity in development, retrofit of housing stock and our physical infrastructure: these should be the drivers of our shared education and training programmes.
The UK construction industry has an identified green skills shortage – we need capacity building efforts at scale which contribute to a just transition. This skill shortage has been identified by the House of Lords built environment committee’s report on Meeting Housing Demand, including green and digital skills (paragraph 213), and the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) and Construction Leadership Council have recognised the need for skilling up to fulfil a national retrofit strategy.
We need to change, and change fast to meet these challenges.
Building the Future Commission
Coming up on the Building the Future commission:
In the coming weeks we will:
- Host our first regional roundtable with our partner Constructing Excellence in the East of England region in mid March
- Convene our first commissioner panel meeting at the end of March
- Interview two big hitters in the world of infrastructure for the infrastructure stream
- Examine whether the qualifications landscape needs to change and assess whether more flexibility is needed for our education and skills stream
- Investigate how for-profit affordable housing can deliver the homes we need for the housing and planning stream
- Assess a new model of procurement used by the Ministry of Defence for the project delivery and digital stream
- Look at models of flexible working in the industry for the workplace, culture and leadership stream
About the 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 commissioner include 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:
- Education and skills
- Housing and planning
- Building safety
- Project delivery and digital
- Workplace culture and leadership
- Creating communities
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.