The first column in this series appeared in Building on 11 April 1980. For many years, they appeared fortnightly, but nowadays I am more reticent. There have been about 360 columns over the 20-year period, under four editors.
The first, which was about the 1980 budget, was dull. Indeed, the editor asked that it should be more punchy in future, as otherwise nobody would notice it. I took his advice, which was like Don Corleone’s advice in The Godfather. He made me an offer I could not refuse. There was one passage in that column which I reproduce here: “When the editor asked me to write a fortnightly series, my first instinct was to decline. I felt that a regular article by one contributor was soon likely to pall. But valour – or vanity – overcame discretion fairly quickly. And so here goes.”
That was written when Margaret Thatcher was just completing her first year as prime minister. Jimmy Carter was president of the USA and Leonid Brezhnev was president of the Soviet Union. Enough of the past. Here, without elaboration or apology, are my predictions for the industry over the first decade of the new millennium.
There will be a progressive reintegration of design and construction, within an overall approach of flexible responses to client wishes.
Whatever the procurement route, the client will expect:
- A clear, direct, single channel of responsibility throughout the progress of the work
- A supply-side team that has no “fuzzy edge” of liability, is closely integrated and has the same goals of client-focused delivery
- Design flair and cost-consciousness, jointly achieved by a team assembled at the earliest possible stage, and combined with best-practice buildability
- Effective and early involvement of specialists in detailed design.
There will be a steady growth of real partnering, which will deliver genuine benefits to all in the process and enable all to share in problems and engage collectively in their resolution.
The pressure for mergers or takeovers among large public companies in the contracting sector is almost irresistible. There is an inexorable logic for the largest international majors to link up with other big firms, both in Britain and overseas, offering “turnkey” services for building, civil and process engineering.
A shed is a shed is a shed, and they have their place, but nobody wins design awards for them
The private finance initiative will be further refined. Because of economic and political pressures on large staff transfers, or very long-term liabilities in the public sector, there will be a growing emphasis on mixed development. Projects will retain a PFI elements, but the public sector will also look for commercial uses for sites to provide another income stream.
Medium-sized construction firms will not disappear, but will need to get up to speed with best practice when dealing with public sector clients influenced by the Egan agenda.
Private housebuilders, spurred on by the growth of league tables, will become increasingly consumer-focused, with heavy penalties in public disfavour for poor site performance.
The repair and maintenance sector will become more cohesive. Organisations with large consumer bases, such as utilities companies, will begin to retain contractors to provide domestic emergency services for householders who take out insurance with them. This is already happening with domestic water and electrical suppliers.
Larger contractors will search for a “brand image”, seeking to be known as school builders, leisure centre specialists or specialists in other niche markets, rather than being available for any kind of construction.
Main contracting firms will not return to direct employment, with specialist contractors increasingly also using labour agency staff. Large firms will need to take a direct role in training alongside labour agencies – which will be a major culture shock for all involved.
Builders will increasingly see themselves as project managers. Guaranteed maximum price will be demanded by clients, but will only be achieved by real partnering approaches.
Large manufacturers and component producers will become more assertive in driving up quality. As latent defect insurance spreads, the insurance industry will insist on higher standards, and involve itself in site inspections. Clients will demand a defects-free culture.
There will be a swing back towards creative design, properly remunerated, involving the integration of the designer within the team to allow the full flow of talent, but without losing buildability. A shed is a shed is a shed, and they have their place, but nobody wins design awards for them. Who wants a land full of sheds?
Happy millennium – but do not expect me still to be writing in 20 years’ time.