The Construction Industry Council's new chairman is diffident about his achievements, but his years with Buro Happold and his infectious enthusiasm for the industry make him the right man to lead the umbrella group's focus on design and urban renaissance.
"I was rather intimidated by the idea of becoming Construction Industry Council chairman," says Michael Dickson, who took up the post in June. Yet Dickson has little reason to be worried. As chairman and a founding partner of multidisciplinary engineer Buro Happold, Dickson has "35 years' experience of bringing in the biz as a designer". He also teaches engineering at Bath University, writes academic papers on the built environment and is a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

If Dickson is intimidated, it may be because he has such a high opinion of his predecessor. He describes outgoing CIC chairman Robin Nicholson as "extremely able both in initiatives and in liaising with government" and "a tough act to follow". CIC chief executive Graham Watts, meanwhile, is, says Dickson, "fantastically energetic and well-organised".

As chair of the representative forum for 35 professional bodies in the construction industry, one of Dickson's key tasks is to "encourage unity in the industry". He thinks his experience of leading Buro Happold's multidisciplinary teams on major projects recommended him for the role. His desire is "to meld together this rather disparate range of interests". With his infectious enthusiasm and broad-ranging interest in the industry, he should have no trouble. "He is not a great ego. He is very affable, the sort of person people want to rally around and work with," says a colleague.

Dickson has already been closely involved with the council for the past year, as deputy chair to architect Nicholson, his chum from Eton and Cambridge University. It is the first time the CIC has had two designers in succession as chairman. Watts expects a seamless transition: "The CIC recognises that design quality and the importance of design in the process has risen up everyone's agenda, with the links to CABE."

Dickson and Nicholson have drawn up a corporate plan for the council, which responds to the findings of Lord Rogers' urban taskforce. Dickson explains: "The government is about to publish urban and rural white papers resulting from the taskforce report. It is very important that the CIC engages its members in the conversation needed to back up those initiatives." The corporate plan includes an integrated land use and transport panel.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to align some responses from the construction side of our culture to the need to reuse land within the urban confines, at a slightly higher density, and integrate it with transportation plans," says Dickson. In parallel, he says, a sustainability development group will compile guidelines for clients on the use of contaminated land. Dickson explains: "One of the problems about brownfield land is the risk to clients of its use. Good guidelines endorsed by the CIC and its member bodies will be very useful as a dipstick."

Dickson intends to keep the spotlight on the design issues championed by Nicholson. Buro Happold's record of innovative design solutions on projects such as the Millennium Dome, the British Museum redevelopment and the new £210m Al-Faisaliah tower complex in Riyadh make him well placed to do so. A colleague says: "He is really interested in pushing the boundaries of engineering. He is a really inquisitive engineer."

Construction is not dull. The organisation is better, and the equipment and environment more interesting than before

Dickson will continue to chair a DETR-funded panel set up in February to produce indicators for building design quality. He is excited about the intellectual challenge of "measuring intangibles". He says: "We are trying to get towards some kind of qualitative assessment of good design, good use of materials, high spatial effectiveness of a building, its therapeutic value, the value of the building to surrounding society. Then other aspects of functionality."

His methodology includes analysing the way in which design awards are judged.

Dickson will also work on building the CIC's regional profile. A Wales branch is already up and running, and branches in the North-west, South-east and South-west will follow. Dickson foresees fruitful new links between the CIC's regional network, the Movement for Innovation's cluster groups and the regional development agencies. Dickson hopes that these links will create the regional powerhouses of ideas needed to move the industry forward. "If you link the initiatives coming out of M4I, to research projects of local universities, to the regional meetings of the CIC, you have a good focus of people working in construction and the built environment."

Dickson hopes that this will also attract the attention of potential recruits to the industry – another of his top priorities. "By tying in the interests locally, emphasizing the importance of sustainability and the intense creativity of the industry, we can attract energetic, young, imaginative people."

He adds: "We have to use a whole bag of tricks – awards, emphasizing sustainability, Respect for People, changing the ethos of the industry." Dickson believes that the industry should showcase high-profile sites to demonstrate how much conditions and the ethos of the industry have improved.

"On any of our sites that make the headlines – the Millennium Dome, the British Museum – they have proper canteens, proper places to put your wet clothes, a diverse range of people working in the endeavour, codes of practice to deal with your colleagues in a polite and purposeful way, and for health and safety," he says. "So it is not dull and dirty. Yes, there is some difficult work to do, but the organisation is better, and the equipment and environment more interesting than before." Dickson even believes that the Millennium Bridge mishap will improve the industry's image. "The fact that it has teething troubles just shows how courageous engineers can be. How, even with modern sophisticated computations, in the end, you are relying a lot on personal courage. That makes people value engineering, because they realise it is not just about style; there is underlying form required as well."

Personal effects

Where do you live and who’s who in your family? We live in Bath, up the hill from the university. My wife is a folk singer and we have two daughters. What is your favourite building? I have always liked Peter Smithson’s Economist building at St James’. It is a wonderful piece of modern design in a historic town centre. What are you reading? Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, This Sceptered Isle by Christopher Lee and Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing by Henry Petroski. What do you do to relax? I love playing tennis and spending time with the family, talking. I read a bit. I do a bit of walking. What is your favourite place in the world? Paris. It has such wonderful public squares and the Seine is a fantastic river. What car do you drive? I’ve just got a Jaguar XV6. Talk about an indulgence. It’s second-hand but it has every gadget you can possibly imagine.