In the built environment, professionalism has largely been the preserve of the consultants and designers in charge of the ‘virtual’ part of construction. But ‘real’ construction needs these values too - in spades

James Wates

Professionalism is one of those principles that is difficult to find fault with. We all want more professionalism. There’s no downside to it, especially if you accept the truth of the quip: “If you think hiring a professional is expensive, try hiring an amateur.” And so it is for construction. We all want to be professionals and deliver quality work that represents good value for money for clients.

But there is a lot more to professionalism than glib sayings. There is a long and rich tradition of professional institutions in the UK. We have numerous chartered institutes, the City livery companies and other guilds, an extensive array of organisations offering vocational qualifications, and some of the world’s best universities. All these institutions establish and promote professionalism in the form of high standards of quality and ethics.

And indeed in the built environment, there is a plethora of professional institutions, and the UK’s professional bodies for architecture, engineering and building are world class.

Unfortunately, there is another side to the story. In the built environment world, professionalism has mainly been the preserve of architects, engineers and consultants, the “virtual” part of construction. But when it comes to “real” construction – that is to say, the builders – professionalism is often less a reality and more an aspiration.

In fact, there is essentially an unwritten assumption that designers and consultants are more worthy of professionalism than builders. To make things worse, the divide in professionalism is accompanied by a divide in working practice. Each specialty tends to work in its own silo, reporting to the client. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, and as BIM becomes ingrained in working practices it will provide a platform for collaboration. But for the time being there is far too little joint working. When combined with unequal levels of professionalism, the system perpetuates a fragmented approach that causes inefficiencies and tensions between designers and builders, and in the end does not serve the client’s best interests.

We need to close this gap, and there are promising efforts to develop a unified code of practice that clients can use to manage the whole process in an integrated fashion.

I believe that construction would benefit by aspiring to some of the professional standards of the medical field

This has great potential, but the other part of the solution lies in raising the industry’s game. At Wates we are seeking to embed professionalism throughout the business, and I know many other large contractors are as well. The incentives are clear. The Chartered Institute of Building’s (CIOB) recent paper, Understanding the Value of Professionals and Professional Bodies, highlights many benefits of professionalism for the individual (for example, financial gain and social mobility) and for the whole sector (enhanced productivity and improved reputation).

Logically, the CIOB argues that raising the level of professionalism will improve construction’s image and increase public trust, especially if the improved and more uniform quality standards are accompanied by the industry getting involved in public policy making, and engaging with broader society, especially schools.

This echoes the report published last year by the Edge Commission, written by ex-government chief construction adviser Paul Morrell, in which he outlined a vision for greater professionalism in the built environment. Fuelled by a consultative process that tapped into some great thinkers inside and outside our sector, the report provided some valuable recommendations, including:

  • Developing a single standard code of conduct to be used across the built environment, analogous to the Hippocratic Oath in the medical profession
  • Conducting a cross-disciplinary review of the siloed nature of the education system (to encourage integration of built environment specialisms in the academic and vocational worlds)
  • Creating a new interdisciplinary designation of “chartered construction and property professional”
  • Establishing a joint think tank to pool resources of the institutions (a King’s Fund for the built environment).

Note the intriguing references to the medical profession. I believe that construction would benefit by aspiring to some of the professional standards of the medical field. Perhaps it’s not too far a stretch. One can imagine a practice of built environment professionals working across the value chain sharing knowledge, learning from each other, aligning visions, and working under one roof in co-ordination to give clients what they need.

The contemporary version of the Hippocratic Oath in the UK is the General Medical Council’s “Duties of a Doctor”, and in those duties, doctors are instructed to, among other things:

  • Keep your knowledge and skills up to date
  • Work within the limits of your competence
  • Be honest and open and act with integrity
  • Be personally accountable for your professional practice and always be prepared to justify your decisions and actions.

Some pretty good advice for us all.

James Wates is chairman of Wates, the CITB and Build UK