The pair talk to Dave Rogers about the added risk of getting major schemes built at a time of rampant inflation and acute skills shortages – and what they think the industry could do to attract more young talent. Photography by Tom Campbell

Laura Collins Tony Wall3

Source: Tom Campbell

Project director Laura Collins and construction director Tony Wall of Stanhope

Laura Collins tells a story about an online careers event she attended this year where she was asked to promote construction as an industry to join. It was for a troop of 50 girl guides, aged between 10 and 17, and her 10-minute slot was sandwiched between a dance instructor and someone who worked in tech making software for video games.

A tough gig, then? “After I’d finished, the first question I got was: do I get bullied by men?”

She admits she was shocked and a little deflated. “Why does this stereotype exist? We have the ability to do incredible things in this industry but it’s not talked about enough in schools.

“It’s not given as an option; it has always been the last option. We need to get to the parents.”

Collins should know all about that, because that is exactly how she got into the industry. Raised in Essex, all the 18-year-old Collins wanted to do was work in London.

“I had no interest in construction at all – I was going to work in insurance or something like that. I just wanted to get a City job; I didn’t particularly want to go to university.

“My mum met a recruitment consultant on a plane coming back from Spain and they got chatting, and the consultant told my mum that I should come in for an interview with a firm.”

That company turned out to be Davis Langdon, where she became an apprentice QS, chartered at 23 before heading off to join Mace’s consulting business and later Rider Levett Bucknall for a couple of years.

Now 34, Collins has been at Stanhope since 2019, where she is a project director and was recently in charge of the firm’s Warwick Court scheme, a refurbishment of the old Goldman Sachs headquarters in Paternoster Square which sits in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Warwick Court, which was carried out by Mace, was procured entirely online because of the pandemic and the scheme had to ride out several storms – both literal, with February’s gales bringing work to a stop, and metaphorical such as the squeeze on labour caused by Brexit and then the coronavirus pandemic.

Built in the 1990s, Warwick Court is one of several refurbishment schemes that Stanhope will be carrying out in the coming years.

Over the summer, Multiplex was appointed to revamp the IBM building – the listed landmark on London’s South Bank completed in 1983 by architect Denys Lasdun – while Stanhope will soon start work to overhaul Woolgate Exchange, a headquarters building near Guildhall in the City that was completed at the start of the 2000s.

8 Bishopsgate © Mike O'Dwyer copy

Source: Mike O’Dwyer

8 Bishopsgate, a 50-storey tower replacing the current 6-8 Bishopsgate and 150 Leadenhall Street building in the heart of the City of London, developed by Stanhope and Mitsubishi Estate London. The tower at 8 Bishopsgate will provide 560,000ft2 of prime office amenity space, including a public viewing gallery at the top

Mace, which is tipped to carry out the Woolgate Exchange job, last year finished a £50m overhaul of Garrard House, the former headquarters of banking giant Schroders which was built 24 years ago by Bovis on Gresham Street, near St Paul’s.

The IBM building is a stone’s throw away from the ITV studios development, designed by Make and being developed by CO-RE, that was called in last month by Greg Clark in one of the last acts of his brief tenure as communities secretary.

Collins’ boss, Stanhope construction director Tony Wall, who celebrates 10 years at the business next autumn, says the ITV decision – which has stalled plans to knock down the broadcaster’s former headquarters and replace it with a mixed-use scheme – has put firms like Stanhope on guard. “It makes you sit up and think: Why? What are the reasons? Is there a risk around the things we are doing?”

It’s more difficult to knock a building down and start again, so we have to think differently. If you can refurbish it, then why shouldn’t you?

Laura Collins, project director, Stanhope

Wall adds: “We’re being asked questions today that wouldn’t have been asked five years ago. We’re pushed a lot more around reuse. I think, as a business, we need to be pushing in that direction as well.”

Collins says: “It’s more difficult to knock it down and start again, so we have to think differently. If you can refurbish it, then why shouldn’t you?”

Most of Stanhope’s work is in London and its core output remains commercial work. But it is also getting involved in more life sciences jobs such as its schemes at Royal Street opposite St Thomas’ Hospital and the British Library in the capital.

It is also working on Oxford North, a new science and technology hub just outside the city centre and ID Manchester, a city centre innovation district the firm is helping to develop alongside local firm Bruntwood.

Still, it has not forgotten its commercial heartland, with the firm involved in planned towers in the City of London at 55 Bishopsgate – set to go in for planning before Christmas – and 70 Gracechurch Street, which it bought in the spring for £400m with joint venture partner Cadillac Fairview, a Canadian investor.

But Wall is worried about who will do the work should it all go ahead, notwithstanding the impact of a predicted recession. “If all the potential projects out there push the green button to go, there most certainly will be an issue around expertise. Everybody out there is trying to secure professional teams.

“All the tier 1s are fighting each other for talent. Over the last two years, there’s been a huge amount of movement between the top five or six contractors. There is a lot of work out there, which makes it a very different issue to previous recessions. If all that [work] happens, we will have problems with labour and professional shortages,” he says.

We are beginning to see some firms go under. There is a lot of pressure in terms of cash flow

Tony Wall, construction director, Stanhope

Wall believes the whole construction team – including clients – need to be more collaborative. “It’s all about trust. The more you talk and communicate, the better for everyone.

One Bishopsgate Plaza © Julian Abrams copy

Source: Julian Abrams

One Bishopsgate Plaza, a 43-storey development in the City. It combines London’s first Pan Pacific Hotel with 160 residences above, a new public plaza, retail and restaurants and, for Strictly fans, a triple height subterranean ballroom

“There has to be an intelligent way of doing things rather than trying to throw risk at somebody that isn’t capable of taking it. We are beginning to see some firms go under. They took a contract a couple of years ago, suffered huge inflation on that price and can’t trade through it.”

He says some of the more labour-intensive trades are beginning to suffer. “There is a lot of pressure in terms of cash flow. We have a reduced pool of labour in London, post Brexit and covid. The whole market around inflation and pricing is up there as the number one issue.”

Wall worries that some clients are simply trying to hand risk down the supply chain. “You have this food chain. You can’t just have people hanging out there on their own. You’ve got to be responsible for what’s happening, and you’ve got to be a good client. I wish all clients would be.”

He adds: “If someone is struggling with a cash flow issue, I’d much rather hear about it from them than go and find out about it somewhere down the line. If a bit of intervention can give somebody some help, and you’re in a position where you can be [doing that], then you should be.

“People think they are passing on risk but, in some instances, just that very passing risk on is a risk because the person on the other side of the table taking that risk might not be able to accept it, and that happens far too much in our industry.”

Stanhope has quarterly meetings with its consultants – its go-to QSs tend to be Alinea, Core Five and Exigere – to take the temperature of the market and find out what is bothering them. It does the same with its contractors as well. The cost consultants tend to be all in the same room for their brainstorming. And the contractors? “We’re not that brave yet,” smiles Collins.

Laura Collins CV


Laura Collins (Tom Campbell)

Source: Tom Campbell

2006 Joins Davis Langdon as apprentice QS in the firm’s M&E business and becomes an M&E project surveyor. Schemes she worked on include Argent’s redevelopment of King’s Cross and the Heron Tower

2012-17 Associate director at Mace Consult, having joined as a project surveyor. Schemes she worked on include the HSBC headquarters in Birmingham

2017-19 Associate at Rider Levett Bucknall, where she worked on the Commonwealth Bank of Australia scheme in London

2019- Project executive and project director at Stanhope

Tony Wall CV

Tony Wall (Tom Campbell)

Source: Tom Campbell

 1995-2001 Various roles, including building manager at Mace

2001-11 Construction director, More London Development

2013- Construction director, Stanhope

Wall says that Stanhope has always had meetings like this but admits: “We’ve turned up the volume since Brexit and covid. The [Ukraine] war has made us go further into the detail. Inflation is the number one issue. If you ask a contractor about inflation, you get a very different story to a cost consultant.”

He returns to the point about how many firms can do the work if it all comes to fruition. “We’ve always enjoyed good relationships with the people we’ve used. But increasingly you are beginning to have to look around.”

Stanhope has hired Multiplex to carry out the IBM work, also known as 76 Upper Ground, under a £120m deal. “They tendered three jobs before and came very close on two [both built by Lendlease]. Kier [another newcomer for Stanhope] is working with us at TV Centre [on a £50m affordable housing scheme].”

Recruitment begins at school

Meanwhile, on the problem of the reduced pool of labour, the answer, for Collins, is simple: “It comes down to attracting people into the industry. We need parents to understand this is a profession. We do great stuff internally in the industry to say what we’re doing to change it, but when you step outside the construction bubble, it’s not talked about in schools.”

She says she recently took 30 girl guides to have a look at the Warwick Court scheme. A trip to McDonald’s, a treasure hunt in Paternoster Square and a spot of making something out of Lego were all on the agenda.

“We had the best day,” she remembers. “On the way home, they said they wanted to be a project manager or a structural engineer. It’s the parents we have to target. They told me they thought construction was about being an architect or a builder. They didn’t realise all these other things existed.”

She thinks new recruits need to learn in an office as well, because working from home and having virtual catch-ups is not ideal for those starting out in their careers. “I started as an apprentice in 2006, and I got all my experience by listening to my colleagues. If you’re not getting that, it’s a bit difficult.”

When Collins joined Stanhope, she was the first woman in the operations team. “Now there are four or five” out of a team of about 20, she says. “Sometimes people get a bit worked up and feel that all the women are coming for their jobs.

“I get pretty annoyed when people say ‘you’ve only got that because you’re a woman’. Actually, it’s because I work bloody hard and I’m good at my job.” Still, maybe that’s why she got asked that question by those girl guides.

To underline the task that the industry faces, a recent survey of 1,100 people working in it found a quarter believed that better advice on construction for youngsters at school or college would help to tackle the skills problem. Other issues which put young people off, said respondents to the poll conducted to coincide with this month’s UK Construction Week, were that it was still seen as being too dirty and male dominated.

Collins, no doubt, would agree. “We’ve got a labour issue, regardless of any diversity stat,” she says. “I shouldn’t be relying on my mum meeting someone on a plane for me to get into this industry.”

In development

Stanhope has 2.3 million ft² of development under construction, including the 8 Bishopsgate office scheme that is due to be completed by Lendlease next spring, a residential scheme being carried out by Kier at Television Centre, and the Gateway West office scheme at White City Place being carried out by Sir Robert McAlpine. The sister Gateway Central scheme is also being carried out by McAlpine and has been part let as French cosmetics firm L’Oreal’s new headquarters.

Stanhope also has more than 12.5 million ft² of pre-development work in its portfolio, the largest of which is 3.2 million ft² of life sciences work at ID Manchester and a further 1 million ft² at the Oxford North life sciences scheme. This is being developed by a joint venture called Oxford North Ventures which is 50% owned by Thomas White Oxford, the development company of St John’s College, with the other 50% owned by Stanhope and Cadillac Fairview, the real estate arm of the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.