Just 10 years from Construction 2025’s deadline, the industry has little idea of how it will reach the government target of cutting build time by 50%. It’s time to put ‘time’ back on the agenda

Andrew Barclay

When the previous government introduced Construction 2025, it reinvigorated the key areas the sector must focus on to be fit for the future. The plan laid out some ambitious goals in “big ticket” areas such as carbon reduction, exports and costs. The other key measure focused on faster project delivery, calling for a 50% reduction in the time taken to design and build projects.

It’s easy to see why central government would want to see construction times reduced. Aside from cost and time being inextricably linked, an industry that can deliver projects quicker is one that is worth investing in. If returns were quicker in coming, it would encourage business to invest in modernising the built environment, which is key to eliminating the boom-and-bust cycle of the construction industry. Indeed, this confidence is not only vital for the construction industry, it’s also necessary to encourage more overseas investment into the UK, to maintain competitive advantage over other markets.

While this is a clear goal for the industry to aim for, Construction 2025 falls well short as a guide on how to meet the challenge.

Of course, working towards a 50% reduction in overall build time is to be applauded, but without guidance how does the industry get there? Without a clear understanding of the benefits, why would disparate, individual organisations of all sizes work together to reach a shared goal? How, and how often, was the government going to benchmark the industry’s performance? None of these questions could be answered in the original documentation, nor have they been clarified since.

Perhaps this lack of clarity is part of the reason for “time” falling off the industry’s agenda, or perhaps Construction 2025’s other aims such as reducing costs and increasing export activity mean more immediate financial gains for most businesses.

Whatever the reason, the industry is currently 10 years away from the culmination of Construction 2025 and isn’t clear on its performance - and it’s not even discussing how these goals are reached.

Construction 2025 is not the first attempt to speed up construction - just after the war, Churchill spoke of the need to create 500,000 new homes (a target we have never achieved). The 1998 John Egan-authored Rethinking Construction report prioritised an ambitious 10% annual reduction in construction time. Over the 10 years monitored (1999-2009) projects not only didn’t speed up, but actually slowed - to 70% slower than Egan’s target over the decade.

It’s the role of others in the industry to facilitate specialist contractors and manufacturers and enable them to chase increases in speed

Reducing construction time has been dropped from the Constructing Excellence agenda, so it’s difficult to know how we can effectively measure current performance. Anecdotally, it appears we could be making some progress. In November 2014 at a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ (BIS) meeting on construction statistics, two industry economists noted that “on time” project completions had improved in recent months - but that’s still less than 50% of all projects, and gains are being driven at the build rather than design stage.

BIS is continuing to look into the issue of time recording. A recent statement from the department acknowledges that very limited data exists to measure construction projects, and that the Construction 2025 strategy failed to signpost a specific measure. In the absence of any current Office for National Statistics data to pull upon, BIS is taking steps in the coming months to measure construction time and, hopefully, track reductions.

Presuming it can be measured, how could we do it? A number of solutions have been floated that could help the UK speed up its current rate of construction, such as BIM and offsite manufacture and modularisation. Indeed, in the retail and leisure market - where modularisation is most established for the creation new buildings - companies like Yorkon have been able to construct McDonald’s restaurants in less than 48 hours, much faster than would have been possible using traditional methods.

Although the above is an isolated example, it does demonstrate that significant progress can be made if the right team takes the right approach. With around 260,000 companies making up the construction sector, a wider “team” vision is likely to be useful, with specialists in each category stepping forward to answer the call.  

Specialist contractors in their truest form understand what it means to deliver quality products faster than a generalist. They invest in their people, equipment, infrastructure and supply chain to optimise efficiency, aiming to maximise profitability without compromising quality - if they don’t do this they won’t survive as a specialist for long.

It’s the role of others in the industry to facilitate these specialists and enable them to chase these increases in speed. For manufacturers and distributors of specialist products this means thinking beyond supplying materials, it means offering added value by collaborating in areas like estimating, design and legislative guidance.

By focusing on time, and asking each individual involved in the construction sector to play their part in facilitating the nation’s specialist contractors, we can hopefully go some way to making a concerted, sector-wide push to meet Construction 2025’s aims over the next decade. Without this sector-wide action, there is little chance of getting close to that ambition.

Robert Barclay is managing director at SIG