The CIC's new head is, however, surprisingly critical of the Egan doctrine, and the political process underlying it: some groups within the industry, he says, have been ignored or overruled. As an example, he gives Accelerating Change, the soon to be published follow up to 1998's Rethinking Construction report, which he says makes no allowances for the needs of smaller and regional firms.
According to O'Brien, research has shown that national and international firms acquire information from seminars and reports; smaller firms rely on local sources, such as leaflets they pick up from their builders merchant. "I have said to Egan that we should think about the different audiences we are trying to target and phrase the information in the way most likely to be understood. One report published nationally will get a very limited audience."
This issue was one of the battlegrounds in the consultations that have preceded the 12 September publication of the report. The CIC "pushed quite hard for a family of reports", says O'Brien, "but Egan wanted to see a single document pulling together all the issues. He said it was up to the component parts of the industry to communicate its message."
But it is not just the form that the report takes that irks O'Brien. He says is would have benefited from further research to give it more credibility with smaller firms. "The report is not well researched, if I'm being blunt," he says, bluntly. "The CIC has been very active in helping produce this report, but there are a lot of things in it which really would have merited from commissioning a study."
So why didn't the CIC make sure that the report was researched better? "Sir John Egan is a forceful chap; he was appointed by government and given a mandate to move things along. He decided how things would be done. Others of us would have done it differently," he adds in invisible italics.
O'Brien is critical of more than just Accelerating Change. In fact "the whole of Rethinking Construction, and to some extent Latham's report before this, focused on the construction process to the detriment of consultants". He says the report "overlooked design issues, it overlooked sustainability and it overlooked construction in the context of society. We feel the emphasis has been wrong," he says, warming to the theme. "If it is a superbly built building that does not meet its needs, it doesn't help at all."
Sir John Egan is a forceful chap. But others of us would have done things differently
Here, O'Brien is doing his main job of championing the value of consultants. This task will be helped by the CIC's new design quality indicators, which provide a framework for measuring the performance of architects and engineers. O'Brien explains: "People talk about paying more attention to the business needs of clients; at the CIC we believe that fundamental to this is design quality."
O'Brien is less sure of how to promote consultancy as a career to students. "There are some horrendous projections of the declining number of students joining professional construction courses at university," he says, touching on a problem that will affect all of the CIC's membership. "I don't know the answer," he confesses, "but my goodness we are going to have to find one."
In many ways the 60-year-old deputy chairman of Arup was an obvious choice to succeed Michael Dickson as head of an organisation representing the interests of construction's professional institutions to government. His extensive committee experience includes stints as chair of the Construction Research and Innovation Strategy Panel, council member for the Construction Industry Research and Information Association and member of the CBI's technology and innovation committee.
Dressed in a sombre blue shirt and maroon tie with his neatly combed grey hair, O'Brien looks, and sounds, like part of the Arup establishment – a role he freely acknowledges: "I'm part of the furniture here," he confesses. Since joining the consultant as a 22-year-old chemistry graduate, O'Brien's knowledge of materials has ensured his involvement with many of the world's leading architects and landmark buildings. Sitting in his capacious office on the executives' floor of Arup's Fitzroy Street offices he reels off a list that includes the Sydney Opera House, the Pompidou Centre and Lloyd's of London.
His experience as part of an integrated design team at Arup is something O'Brien hopes to bring to his role at the CIC. "There is clearly a challenge to professionals to work in a more integrated way, and the CIC thinks it extremely important that all our members respond to this," he explains. The CIC is setting up 12 regional networks to enable a wide range of members to attend events. "It is much closer to the grassroots of the organisation, so it will encourage smaller firms to get involved," O'Brien predicts.
Personal effectsWhere do you live?
Bayswater, west London.
Who else is in your family?
My partner – a journalist on the Financial Times – and my grown-up daughter, who is a management accountant.
You mentioned leaflets on builders merchants’ counters – are you a DIY enthusiast?
When I lived in Chiswick I did one of those 10-year projects doing up a Victorian house.
What are your hobbies?
In times past, I’ve designed and made furniture. I don’t have much time for that these days, though.
What do you do to relax?
Read. I’m currently reading Will Hutton’s The World We’re In – it’s pretty thought provoking.