Constructing Excellence’s review of the progress we’ve made in the 11 years since Sir John Egan, who was chairman of BAA at the time, published his report should come with a health warning: reading this may cause severe depression.
The review, Never Waste a Good Crisis, was put together by an 11-strong panel chaired by Andrew Wolstenholme, the managing director of Balfour Beatty Management. It takes its evidence from key performance indicators, industry surveys and the views of experts, and its principal finding is that Egan has had little lasting influence on the way the industry operates.
The fact that construction has missed targets such as finishing projects on time and to budget won’t come as a great surprise to industry-watchers. These results have been aired earlier. It’s what the report has to say about the industry’s culture that makes one want to reach for the paracetamol, if not the Prozac.
The dissection of the industry’s woes could have been written at any time in the past 20 years.
For large clients, the cost of constructing a building is not a big part of their overall expenditure, so they view it as a commodity purchase and don’t get too involved. The industry has no well-known brands that exemplify it – so it struggles to attract the recognition of the public, the attention of politicians or the loyalty of top flight graduates. It also contains altogether too many bodies representing sectional interests who spend too much time fighting like cats and dogs (or concrete and steel lobby groups). Shall I go on, or do you get the picture?
More surprising is that all the talk of collaborative working seems to have been just that – talk. And where there were commitments, “these tended to be superficial and expedient”. Of course, a lot of this relies on anecdotal evidence, and some people may have been having a bad day when they filled in the form. That said, the perception is that we haven’t moved on – a view particularly held by those canvassed by G4C (Generation for Collaboration), the cross-industry group for those at the beginning of their careers.
As the report concludes, for the past decade the industry has been sheltered by a healthy economy that has enabled it to prosper without having to strive for innovation or reform. Well, those days are over and now the working practices of the industry are being tested to their limits. There is still a widespread sense that collaborative working – rather than lowest price – delivers the best value in the end. But the number of those holding that view is diminishing as clients take advantage of the buyer’s market to screw down outturn costs – even though they are relatively small compared with the cost of a building over its lifetime.
And what of innovation? Necessity is meant to be the mother of invention, and indeed the last recession gave us pioneering schemes such as Broadgate and Stockley Park. But who’ll drive innovation this time? Can consultants and contractors, as the report urges, show some leadership? And what of the biggest challenge of all – greening past and future buildings and playing our part in building a sustainable economy? And more cheaply than we’ve done so far?
Perhaps the main difficulty, faced with this banquet of problems, is knowing where to start. So the green agenda may be something we can unite around. If there’s any justice in this world, those who bring ideas and value to the green agenda will be rewarded for their efforts. The fear is that there may well be no justice, and that too many firms – clients included – will follow their primitive instincts and beat down their suppliers while they wait for the market to come back.