Extract from Building, 18 July 2033:
So, after all the speculation, the shortlist for main contractor on London One, the world largest office complex, has been narrowed down to two candidates. It's no surprise that the global powerhouse of Bechtel Beatty made the cut for the *8bn project – it has been in pole position ever since SOM, its architectural arm, won the design contract last September. It rival is a firm that has a turnover of less than one hundredth of its own. Prima CM will have been almost as surprised as delighted to get this far.

The final stage will be a key battle between the American and European models of contracting. It will also be a clash between two of construction's biggest personalities: Virginia Carter-Jones, chief executive of Bechtel Beatty, and Marek Zemlinski, chairman of Prima. The rivalry goes back many years: both were in the class of '11 at the Harvard Business School. But there the similarity ends: Oxford graduate Carter-Jones is a strategy consultant by training, and this is her first job in construction; by contrast, Zemlinski has been in the industry ever since he arrived in London as a teenage illegal immigrant in 1998, with (famously) £10 in his pocket, no work permit and precious little English.

The stakes are high. Stanhope BAA has a reputation as a demanding client that goes back to the 1980s. The practices they pioneered 30 years ago (project-based insurance, earned-value analysis, internet-based procurement) are now mainstream, but it remains at the cutting edge by using psychometric tests to select management teams and nanotechnology to reduce its buildings' whole-life costs. And whoever wins this job will be well placed to bid for follow-up work on a string of airport and office projects that go out to tender later this year at Bucharest, Nanjing, San Jose and Bangalore.

If this article is ever written, the construction industry has a lot to do in the coming decades. Needless to say, were Building's readers in 2033 to travel back 30 years they would find today's construction firms incredibly old-fashioned, and wonder why things were ever done this way. But you don't need a time machine to find people who consider today's construction industry backward: they exist all around us. In order to see how much construction will change in the years ahead, we need to look at five key ways in which it is out of date at the moment.

First, contractors have an outdated view of who they are. They have always seen themselves in military terms: the client sets them an objective, and they attain this by mobilising, organising and disciplining large armies of workers. Second, executives are at the tail-end of management thinking, copying ideas about lean production and risk management from more advanced sectors and failing to take time out for MBAs. Third, construction is one of the last industries where most of the workforce are white males. Fourth, the management structure remains hierarchical – the "them and us" division between executives and site workers is strong. And fifth, construction is more restricted than most industries by national boundaries – although many practices have offices around the globe, we have yet to see a construction firm with the global reach of BP, Ford or Microsoft.

How will things change? Quickly – global business is advancing fast, and construction is starting from a long way behind, so it has to run to catch up.

The outline of the new thinking about what a contractor is and does is being sketched now by a few top clients. The main idea is that contractors should leave the procurement and management of labour to agencies. Rather, they should offer a comprehensive design-to-demolition solution to a client's accommodation needs. Elements of such a solution are present today in different places, for example in construction management, design-and-build procurement and design-build-operate PFI schemes. The problem is that CM necessarily limits a contractor's involvement, design-and-build has (let's face it) become associated with putting up bad buildings, and the PFI is constrained by the public sector and its poor public image. What clients want is for contractors to supply them with a team of multidisciplinary brainboxes who plan and construct their building according to standard criteria, helpfully supplied by key performance indicators, and devise strategies to meet a range of eventualities once the building is operational.

Take the fictional example of our *8bn LondonOne office. This is a landmark building (in case you were wondering, it's a huge spiral of shimmering platinum in East Ham). It is also a huge commercial risk for its developer. From the very start of the design process, the contractor will have to have devise and implement a set of strategies to understand, quantify, minimise and price that risk. This will be the job of teams dealing with everything from contaminated soil to movements in the commercial leasing market. So, while one team is brainstorming soil remediation with underwriters, another is gaming the relationships between market demand and space configuration with concept designers and leasing experts. More groups will handle disputes, health and safety, subcontractor relations, legal documentation and so on. At the centre of the project web will be the top team, which will have the job of pulling the solutions together into one internally consistent project plan. And at the apex of that zenith is the person with the most important job of all: doing lunch with the client …

If the contractor is evolving, so too is the client. The biggest will be increasingly global, and will want to make their life easy by dealing with one equally global construction partner. New types of global client will emerge. Governments have traditionally resisted the foreign ownership of airports and utilities, often on spurious national security grounds. Cross-border takeovers are beginning in these sectors; by 2030, they will be advanced.

And, while we're on the subject, airports will provide a steady stream of megaprojects. The Airbus A380, with a record-breaking capacity of 555, goes into service in 2006, and Boeing is preparing a rival design that carries fewer people but travels just below the speed of sound. Both developments will accommodate a tripling of passenger numbers. Airports will be internodal transport hubs served by trains above and below ground, motorways, and nearby hotels. And watch out for magnetic levitation (maglev) trains – the world's first, linking Pudong Airport to downtown Shanghai, opens in 2004, and if it succeeds, more will follow worldwide.

The great unknown that could scupper clients in the airlines sector, and elsewhere, is energy costs. Oil fields won't be drained to the dregs in 2030, but they might be down to about 80 years of proven reserves [People energy time, page 47]. For civil engineers, harnessing power from the wind, waves and sun will no longer be a trendy sideline – it will be a core business. The government's energy white paper, published earlier this year, calls for renewable sources to provide 10% of Britain's electricity by 2010 and 40% by 2050. Amec was ahead of the game when it bought a wind farm specialist and renamed it Amec Wind in 2000. Possible energy shortages are particularly important because the growing middle classes in the developing world, increasingly able to afford cars and air-conditioning, will consume energy with the thirst of western Europeans, or even – heaven forbid – Americans.

A new outline of what a contractor is and does is being sketched by a few top clients

Indeed, the upwardly mobile developing world will be the main source of clients in the decades to come. Rich countries will be lucky to sustain annual GDP growth in the 2-4% range, whereas China and India will easily manage double that. Construction firms will have to do business there if they want to be included in the framework deals of global clients. But it won't be easy – they will have to deal with corrupt officials, technically insolvent local banks, unreliable legal systems and local site managers who think safety means remembering to wear a hard hat when inspectors visit. That said, developing countries will be a lot better in 2030 than they are now.

Back in Blighty, the government will remain the biggest client, but it will become much more businesslike, partly because most senior civil servants will be recruited from the private sector. The population will grow older, so we will need fewer schools and more hospitals. Demographics will also mean that construction's biggest growth area will be in retirement homes – McCarthy & Stone won't have the market to itself forever, as is becoming apparent.

In order to understand their clients better, companies will second employees to them – a practice that is already common among commercial law firms. Most secondees will come back with the vital ability to see things from the client's point of view. Some won't come back at all, but that's a good thing – management consultants, such as McKinsey, have long realised the value of seeding organisations with former employees.

This change will be a relatively minor part of the revolution that will transform the people side of the construction industry. Today, industry bigwigs are aware of the skills shortage and the under-representation of women in construction, but they have been incredibly slow to see the connection between the two. In the future, new-paradigm contractors will not be able to live without women – nor will they want to.

By 2030, a new ethnic minority will have appeared on London sites: white Britons. Many of their colleagues will be from the south and east of the European Union. Today, Slavonic languages are more common that English on many sites. If you played a word association game with construction managers today, "immigrant" would often be associated with "illegal". Thanks to EU accession, however, workers from 10 countries including Poland will gain the freedom to work in Britain as early as next year; over the next couple of decades, as the EU's labour shortage grows, that could be extended to citizens of every country in Europe.

No doubt the Daily Mail is dreaming up worst-case scenarios on the back of this trend. Large sites like Terminal 5 will include accommodation for thousands of site workers. The prospect of so many young men living in isolated conditions is worrying enough, but how are we to prevent close-knit groups from becoming close-knit gangs, complete with vendettas and struggles for the drug market?

At the other end of the great chain of corporate being, a new breed of corporate supremos will emerge. During the recent furore over fat-cat pay, it was painfully obvious to the chief executives of construction firms that they earned less in a year than some of their FTSE100 counterparts do in a week. That's because they generally have limited international experience, little formal management education, and tend to stay in their sector. Come the new paradigm contractor, all of that will change. Firms will be led by top business school graduates who will strive to extract big returns on capital employed from turnover on several continents. And they will expect to be paid accordingly. Skilled craftsmen, on the other hand, will see their wages drop as an influx of legal immigrants and women alleviates the skills shortage. Expect the ratio of chief executive's pay to that of the average worker's to go from 20:1 to about 100:1. Boards will have some trouble explaining this to the increasingly powerful corporate social responsibility lobby. Share prices are largely determined by the views of asset managers, and a growing number of them practise ethical investment: they look at issues such as the diversity of a company's workforce and its impact on the environment as well as its financial performance. As firms like Skanska and Bechtel try to build global brands, they will need to work very hard to maintain and enhance their ethical credentials – otherwise they could be on the receiving end of a "Stop Esso"-style campaign [Carillion, page 41].

Ethical business is all very well, but what construction really needs to do to impress the City is triple its profit margins. It can be done – contractors in the USA work on margins of at least 6% or 7%. The industry will also become a more sophisticated user of what the City (and Wall Street) has to offer. There are three ways for a company to raise money: a bank loan, equity, or bonds. British firms have done only the first two. In the past, contractors' incomes were too unreliable to take out bonds, but that was before 30-year PFI projects …

Some things will still be the same in 2030. There will still be economic cycles; we will still be obsessed with house prices, and Britain will still be rainy. That is actually a serious point – nobody can predict what sort of climate change we're in for, but the storms and floods of recent years are likely to be repeated, with major repercussions for weather-related delays, flood defence programmes and building in flood plains such as the Thames Gateway [Environment160, pages 38-42].


The Lampl prophesies

What will become of us
Most big companies will be privately owned, and their employees will have a stake in them. This will at last strike a fair balance between clients’, employees’ and shareholders’ interests. The delivery will be seamless with design, construction and maintenance teams working in close co-operation. Companies will specialise on particular trade skills and some will focus on management more than at present. So, as well as managing the construction process, future executives will need an understanding of finance, design and, above all, local needs. Professional design management will be as common as site management is today, and it will attract the best brains from the best universities. The world league
There will be about 10 global contractors, more than half from the Anglo-Saxon world. They will manage projects financed by the World Bank and international institutions. A typical project will involve the training of local staff and the education of their children. And aid will be given in the form of complete projects, including a commitment to operate them for a certain time. Handing back the assets
The first £100bn of PFI projects will be due for handover. Predictably, public sector clients will want their assets in “as new” condition so there will be a lot of maintenance and repair between now and then, and the legal profession will have a lot to do … Forget inflation
… and by then, an hour of a solicitor’s time will cost you *2500. But construction costs won’t grow as much. The price of industrial products will rise only marginally year on year. Many products will become much cheaper and rising labour costs will be offset by better productivity. Homes for all
That’s good news for homebuyers because construction costs for a small dwelling will be affordable, just as a good car is today. The problem for would-be home owners will be shortages of land as “they stopped making it a long time ago”. Cities in the clouds
This pressure on land will force a high-rise renaissance, but the good news for those in sky towers is that their lifts will be reliable, and equipped with coffee machines and seats. Entertainment venues will move from ground to top floor. The environmental impact
The lifecycle of projects will be the focus of influential studies. And with dwindling oil reserves [People energy time, page 47], aircraft and motor cars will need to be more efficient, and therefore quieter – which will open up noise-blighted areas such as motorways to habitation. Breaking environmental or safety rules will become a serious crime. The sustainability lobby will demand the preservation of our dwindling supply of old buildings, so complex, high-tech refurbishment will be a big part of our activities. Divided planet
Sadly, the difference in living standards between the developed and developing countries will have widened still further. The advantages of IT will give the first world an increasingly firm hold on power and wealth. Yeeee-ha!
Will there still be cowboys in our industry? Yes – of course. But there will be a licensing system, and customers employing unaccredited builders will have only themselves to blame if things go wrong. Naturally I’m curious to see which of my predictions materialise from my study in London. However, that would involve a telegram from the King …


A legal fable
With a little help from the late Antonio Vivaldi, Gemma’s six-month-old son could usually be relied on to sleep through the second half of the morning. She had his cradle rigged by the side of her desk, in the company’s Beautiful Duckling autopram. Through the picture window of the pristine steel-and-glass site cabin, she watched the logistics bots crawling through the mud with a shipment of hemp wall panels, like leaf-cutter ants. Sometimes, she thought, it might be nice if something went just a little bit wrong … A quick glance at her treasured ormolu analogue clock confirmed that lunch might plausibly be taken, so she tucked her universal identity chip in her pocket and walked to the canteen, the pram waddling obediently behind her. She dialled a latté and cottage cheese salad, then chatted on the tablephone to her husband Jock, who worked in the firm’s legal department. They made a point of not talking about their jobs at home, but sometimes she wondered whether he was as (she might as well say it) bored as she was by all the efficiency she was faced with every day. Take the present scheme. It was a distribution centre for a world-renowned shoe designer, who selected it from the web page of a module firm, complete with patinated copper finishes and PV-ceramic roof. During the conversation, she began to daydream of retiring. Maybe she’d take up lion taming … As he talked to his wife, Jock found it hard to keep his mind entirely uncontaminated by envy. While Gem was relaxing in her tubular steel furniture accompanied by music from the great adverts, he was stuck among the tottering heaps of mouldering paper in his musty cellular office. The European Union, having lost patience with the parochial contractual practices of nation states, had introduced the Code Européen that governed all important terms in the relationship between the contracting parties – circumventing the need for detailed written contracts. The department was not happy with a number of provisions of the CE. Accordingly, it continued to use UK standard forms. Although the forms were improved in terms of intelligibility and length (JCT2030 was down to 99.5 pages, the provisions for nomination having been deleted), there was still a perception among lawyers that they were produced for the benefit of the supply side. Amendments abounded. Although the CE gave statutory rights to third-party purchasers and tenants, the property industry still felt much more comfortable with pieces of paper in its hands. Accordingly, collateral warranties to potential future tenants were still required in case demand for shoes fell away and the unit had to be relet. True, the contract terms were clearer, but the other documents – particularly the general preliminaries and the schedules of amendments – were poorly put together and conflicted with them. Most disputes seemed to focus, tiresomely, on these conflicts, punctuated once a week by calls to arms to fend off an unexpected adjudication. As Jock hung up and plodded back to his desk to renew his weary struggle with a 60-page print-out from the shoe designer’s lawyers, a specialist intellectual property law firm that knew nothing about construction, he permitted himself a short daydream: retirement to a little cottage in Dorset with roses around the door.

Business timeline

First commercial producing oil well

IBM founded

General strike in Britain

In US, stock market prices collapse, with US securities losing $28 billion – first phase of Depression and world economic crisis

Roosevelt launches New Deal in America

Bretton Woods Conference creates International Monetary Fund and World Bank

Bank of America launches the first credit card

Britain enters the EEC

The Black Monday crash

First cyberbank opens for business

European single currency agreed

Kenneth Lay, chairman of bankrupt energy trader Enron, resigns

First entirely virtual office set up

Sales of electric cars exceed sale of petrol cars for first time

First commercial nanotechnology manufacturer

Capitalist economy ends as robots produce 95% of world manufactured goods


Nothing dates faster than today’s ideas as to what the future might look like. This is why Disney presents it from a Jules Verne viewpoint. Communication – not environment – is what really moves. What makes 1980s thrillers look old-fashioned is not the naff mirror-glazing on the office buildings, it is the stars imagining that they look cool clutching mobiles the size of bread loaves. Looking backwards, the two biggest changes in the construction industry 100 years ago were pioneered in the States. It was a different way of doing things made possible by the development of the six-inch nail (that is, precious little craftsmanship) and the emergence of sheet materials, especially plywood. However, the buildings did not look very different for a while. The things that changed them were lifts in the 1920s, and in the 1950s the idea that reinforced concrete was an acceptable look – which of course it now isn’t. Changes in aesthetic appearance at the top end of the environmental game are inspired by architects. The copiers of Frank Gehry already have a lot to answer for. A few amazing out-of-kilter walls and floors is very exhilarating in an art gallery, but enough is enough. Who is going to get better in a sub-Gehry PFI hospital? Future Systems’ scintillating Selfridges [pictured] is a bravado building, but points the way to where? And what about when everybody starts copying Zaha? The most futuristic thing about the Eden Centre was probably not the biomes (amazing though they were) but the development of the computer model necessary to calculate the nodes that would hold the struts together. One hopes that that project will show us how to use environmental controls to take sustainability with the seriousness that is required. Solar heaters have been an established feature of the roofscape of small Mediterranean villages for some years, but as long as billionaire Arabs and Chinese continue to ask for glass skyscrapers to demonstrate their modernity, it seems unlikely that any large-scale response to sustainability will form part of commercial clients’ briefs. Magically thin films created Eden biomes, and Kansai and now Madrid show us airports as genuinely exciting as they were in the 1950s – before they became indistinguishable from business parks and warehouses. If Herzog and de Meuron’s novel (and, again, highly organic) stadium in China – which looks like a giant raffia fishing creel – gets built, it will also be a result of 5% imagination and 95% IT. Yet at the same time, spec houses are actually looking backwards. More dados, more space-wasting gangnail trusses, more nicky-nooky tiles – less innovation. It is depressing to think how much energy is being expended so that these brick boxettes can be prefabricated (oh, all right, modulated) and dumped on to sites complete. One would hope that a better understanding of nature would influence the habitat that humans build for themselves. Unfortunately, humans do not build for themselves. Large corporations build for them and what corporations like is control and money. For every BedZED, there are going to be 5000 Noddy houses. The most futuristic construction programme at present is probably being built by imagineers in Vegas, but the driver for this is cynicism of the nastiest kind. Let us hope that some shift of emphasis (probably in energy, and probably something more genuinely liberating than wireless electrical installations) makes all us become more resourceful about using resources. It will probably help if whatever seismic event occurs (mass fast-food poisoning, total gasoline allergy), happens in the States – because that is where everything changes fastest.