Exhortation changes little in this industry - challenges like mass retrofitting of housing depends on regulation

Robin Nicholson

The recent surge in house prices in some areas, thanks in large part to the government’s Help to Buy hand-outs, would suggest that even HM Treasury finds it difficult to learn from past experience and to change its short-termist ways; rather like our industry? 

When I was recently preparing the 9th Happold Medal Lecture as part of the 25th anniversary celebrations of The Construction Industry Council (CIC), I was reminded of our industry’s huge resistance to change despite the many reports, money, sweat and exhortation from governments and successive waves of industry leaders.

The dead hand of the Treasury seems to have marginalised the transformational idea of economic recovery through green retrofit

Michael Latham’s ‘Constructing the Team’(1984) was the first of many such reports which government and the industry took seriously; the outputs from the 12 working groups were comprehensive and the Construction Industry Board provided us with a working structure. Then, in ‘Rethinking Construction’ (1998), John Egan said that clients wanted a better deal and called for demonstration projects to show the new way. The industry responded with some impressive examples of them ‘doing it differently’, many driven by the growing interest in sustainability. But as an industry we resisted change, having declined to learn from these Demonstration Projects.

Next we had Andrew Wolstenholme’s strong call to arms ‘Never waste a good crisis’ (2009) in which he lists his ‘Top 10 Industry Reports since Egan’- 10! But all the while climate change was going up the industry agenda and some real change was being brought about by stepped increases in regulation, which clearly works a whole lot better than exhortation.

Cross-party unity around climate change gave me real hope that Paul Morrell’s Green Construction Board (2011) would make a significant difference. The coalition started well by increasing the targets set in the Climate Change Act and the Board published its route-map; but the dead hand of the Treasury seems to have marginalised the transformational idea of economic recovery through green retrofit.

So when Peter Hansford ‘s four new targets included 33% lower costs as well as 50% lower emissions, I began to despair as (squeezed) prices are taking off on projects in London and the South-east. In not getting to grips with retrofitting the 1,600 homes a day every day till 2050 that we need to do - a grand projet if ever there was one - have we just wasted the latest good crisis?

Robin Nicholson is a senior partner of Cullinan Studio

Earlier this month, Nicholson, the former chairman of the Construction Industry Council (1998 — 2000) became the ninth recipient of the Happold award, awarded jointly by the Construction Industry Council and the Happold Trust and delivered a lecture entitled “Collective responsibility for a sustainable industry”.