Building services engineers now command a seat at the top table but it wasn’t always so. Chris Cole, chief executive of WSP Group, charts the past, present and future of the profession
Oil prices were an issue in the 1970s, though demands for energy efficiency in buildings were nowhere near as pronounced as today. Inflation was high, too, so there was pressure on costs. In fact, 1978 is a good year to start looking at the evolution of the services engineer because the property markets were changing and a raft of new technologies was coming together to make the role more valuable to the industry than ever before.
In the 1960s, the building services engineer was generally regarded as a specialist in something such as heating and ventilation, electrical engineering or air-conditioning. The concept of a discipline that integrated more technical engineering skills was a long way off. By 1978, things had started to change. Services engineers were starting to provide essential and complementary services to architects, structural engineers and cost consultants.
Training and education
Awareness was rising that the viability of a building could be enhanced by the expertise of the services engineer. Practitioners were bringing more new ideas and skills to projects. It was a self-perpetuating upward spiral. By 1978, the services engineer had become a member of the main team, but was often seen as a necessity rather than a truly valued asset.
During the 1970s, building design was driven by the market and compliances. Issues such as energy or sustainability were not generally on the agenda. Energy targets were calculated but rarely had any proactive value.
Top films included Saturday Night Fever and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Smoking was still popular with lighting up common in public places. Mobile phone coverage was patchy and expensive. They were only just becoming a business tool, and email did not exist to any great extent. Communication was not expected to be instantaneous.
Some developing regions are still growing fast but more established economies are teetering on the brink of recession. For the building services engineer, however, there are firm trends and opportunities – the need and desire for energy efficiency and reduced carbon emissions is becoming deeply entrenched in design and construction around the world, even in countries where energy supply is less of an issue. The services engineer’s skills travel well.
Increased focus on the sustainability, commercial and aesthetic aspects of buildings has seen services engineers become key members of project teams. In the 1970s, they were often the last to be appointed, whereas today they are first in the queue when clients are considering their team structures and the needs of a project. This has had a knock-on effect on the professional status of building services engineers – their advice and counsel is valued.
Training and education
Communication technologies have leapt forward since 1978, which has changed the way people use buildings
The sky’s the limit for graduates choosing to deepen their experience in building services disciplines. While companies are doing much more than in 1978 regarding recruitment, training and professional development, there are still not enough good people to go round. The opportunity opened up by the green agenda means the industry can and should be advancing people who are non-engineers and non-vocational but have good brains and want to work in the built environment. Without such people, building services will not be able to meet the needs of the market, the environment and society as a whole.
Climate change, emissions reduction, energy certificates … the topics that are important to the building services industry around the world are largely related to sustainability. The emphasis has moved to not simply meeting legislative requirements but exceeding them. Environmental best practice is highly prized and leading services engineers are constantly pushing the boundaries to improve the performance of buildings while mindful of commercial realities. What makes the profession so exciting is that building services can make a real difference.
Mobile phones, hand-held computers, the internet, intranets – it’s a very different business landscape compared with 30 years ago. Communication technologies have leapt forward and that has changed the way people use buildings. Health and fitness are important to many people and this extends to the demand for “healthy buildings”, where they can work comfortably and safely. WSP, for example, is offering a service that looks at organisational and behavioural safety in buildings. The overall engineering is far more sophisticated and the benefits much greater than they were in 1978.
Things change so quickly in our industry that events and developments can be difficult to predict. WSP’s strategic plans are for a five-year period. There are some clear macro-economic trends, however. For example, the world population in 2030 is expected to be double that of 1980. The implications for the way cities are built and operate will undoubtedly increase the demand for building services engineers’ skills.
The services engineer is likely to have a different professional status and title by 2038. Perhaps there will be roles that don’t exist today. Jobs are likely to be more technologically and sustainability related. There may be no such thing as a “building services engineer” – the disciplines will still exist but may have morphed into something we can’t imagine at present.
Training and education
People offering building services engineering expertise will have chosen whether to operate at the front end or the delivery end of the process. Most will be at the front end, as delivery will be a continuous supply chain process carried out anywhere in the world. More than ever, professionals in the services sector will have a good grasp of global issues and will sit at the top table, where their advice will be seen as high value and essential to the outcome of a project. Today’s engineers should be moving in this direction – and many are doing so.
Three decades from now, the building services engineer may no longer be an engineer but a competent person who advises conceptually and schematically on the processes that have a direct and indirect effect on the success of a development. I see these individuals advising on every aspect of energy supply, including security and location, for example, and the whole concept of how people work, travel and socialise. Sustainability will have become a part of everyday practice.
Often what were once luxuries come to be regarded as essentials, so everyday existence could be much more cosseted than today. Technology will drive us all into new places, experiences, skills and expectations, which will mould our buildings – but we will need buildings just as we do now for social and business integration. The role of the “new” building services engineer is secure and will be enhanced significantly.
Building Sustainable Design