As the Egan era draws to a close, the chair of construction think tank Be is ready to take over as the industry's helmsman. And, as he tells Marcus Fairs, his aim is to create an industry that has more self-confidence, more self-knowledge and more self-control.
Did you enjoy your Christmas break? Good. Now let's have a look at construction's to do list for 2003. In no particular order: solve the skills crisis, weather whatever storms hit the economy, make the workforce more representative, stop killing people, build sustainably … and so on.

It's enough to make you want to crawl back under the duvet. But, according to Richard Saxon, construction faces a more fundamental challenge. "The industry doesn't know why it exists," he says. "It doesn't know what it's for. It gets through £70bn every year and basically just says, 'Where do you want it, guv?'"

Richard Gilbert Saxon CBE is perhaps the closest thing the industry has to a wise old bird. With his neat, snowy beard, hard-boiled dome and beady blue eyes, the 60-year-old looks like an American president from the 19th century. In fact, he's an architect by training, and served as chairman of the UK's largest practice – Building Design Partnership – from 1996 until last summer (he was replaced under BDP's peculiar voting system and his title is now marketing director).

Saxon is also chair of Be – (very) short for Collaboration for the Built Environment – an independent organisation formed by the merger of research body the Reading Construction Forum and lobby group the Design Build Foundation.

Launched in November, Be has 90 member companies – among them Laing O'Rourke, Foster and Partners and Land Securities – which, Saxon says, represents 9% of the industry by value. It aims to help members to improve their businesses by making them more client-focused, while giving the industry a bit of much-needed strategic guidance.

"Basically, we're heading towards a new vision for the industry," Saxon says. "The industry should add value to its customers' businesses and to society by organising the built environment in a way that does good things. It should offer much more useful things, much better value."

Saxon believes, construction's mission is to provide society with a first-rate built environment. "But it never occurred to anybody to think that we were about improving the quality of life in Britain," he says in his mild Mancunian accent. "They would have said: 'Oh, what pretentious rubbish. Somebody asks me to build them a building, I build it.'"

Saxon points out that construction is seen as polluting, dangerous and undesirable as a career choice – perceptions that are often justified, but that go unchallenged because the industry gives no alternative account of itself. "The leadership of the industry needs to wake up; they need to have a vision, and at the moment they don't."

The launch of Be is timely, since other initiatives to help the industry are in retreat. The DTI, construction's sponsoring department, is gradually extricating itself from the web of bodies, taskforces and government-funded programmes inherited from the DETR. Sir John Egan – a figure synonymous with the old-style, government-driven reform programme – bid farewell to construction last summer and it is widely expected that the multifarious Egan bodies – the Movement for Innovation, Construction Best Practice and so on – will wind down over the next couple of years.

At the same time, Egan's belief that powerful clients should drive improvement in the industry is beginning to look somewhat outmoded; many major clients are saying they want to focus on their core businesses and do not want to get involved in running construction supply chains.

"The majority will just say, look, we just want to buy buildings," says Saxon. "We don't have to do this for anything else we buy, such as IT, vehicles and so on; those industries offer us products that are pretty well what we want. We buy them carefully but we don't have to run the supply chain. Why can't construction be like that?"

So the Egan era is over: time now for construction to stand on its own feet, Saxon feels. "Egan has had his four years of heavy government intervention; there's probably another two years of support for the Egan bodies. But certainly by the time the two years are up the industry will either be reforming itself, or it won't be reforming at all."

Interestingly, Saxon argues, many of the industry's structural weaknesses identified by Egan – lack of strong, dominant brands, fragmented supply chains, confrontational relationships – are beginning to dissolve as IT and the internet begin to facilitate collaborative working.

The industry doesn’t know why it exists. It gets through £70bn a year and basically just says, ‘Where do you want it, guv?’

"With the new forms of networking, where you can collaborate with companies without owning them, you can form a team that is much more attractive to big clients. You can form a team that can work almost as if it was in one place and under a single ownership for just a single project or, better still, for a whole series of projects."

Yet even a fully IT-enabled industry will fail to realise its potential unless it starts to see itself as a provider of solutions rather than simply a builder of buildings. "Don't just do projects," Saxon says; "Think, develop, research. Don't just get your little pad out and say 'tell me what you want'."

Part of the problem is that the cash-poor construction sector cannot afford the research and development common in other industries, so it has never been able to deduce clients' needs. Most R&D, Saxon says, is carried out by product manufacturers, who do not necessarily have the end-user in mind when they unveil their latest innovations. "So the whole industry is driven by inventions by the glass industry or the drainage industry or the curtain walling people. These are technical innovations, not innovations that add value to the end customer's business – which is where the story starts from my point of view."

Be will try to redress the balance by commissioning research into how construction can add more value – starting with the question of the industry's contribution to the national economy. "We spend 7% of GDP on buildings – half on new build and half on refurb. That amounts to half of all capital spend in the UK – the other half is equipment. What effect does this have on the other 93% of the economy? How can we create more value for UK plc? We don't know because it hasn't been studied."

Above all, the industry has to figure out where and how it adds value to its customers' businesses, Saxon argues. "People in construction think you can only improve value by reducing cost," he says. "But there's no value for us if we don't create value for the customer."

Much of the recent obsession with "lean construction" is misguided, he suggests, because firms are trying to reduce waste without analysing whether this produces benefits for the customer. "An awful lot of the lean message falls to the ground because you're cutting out obvious waste like unused pieces of plasterboard going straight into the skip, but does that add value to your customer? Are they prepared to pay money for it? Because if they aren't, you don't do it."

Saxon cites research by the Royal Academy of Engineering, which found that every pound spent on a new commercial building generated £250 for the occupier over its lifetime. As an architect, he's keen to point out that the "value ratio" of the design stage is even higher: a pound spent on design produces £2500 overall. "So anyone who scrimps on design is hacking away at the thing without having any idea where the value lies."

Saxon is fiercely critical of his profession's refusal to accept the realities of today's industry – and its continuing opposition to concepts such as PFI and contractor-led procurement. "A lot of architects felt that all that Egan stuff would go away. It's hard for the profession to realise how far it's moved from where it was in the 19th century when architects ran building projects, hired the tradesmen, and delivered the buildings.

"In the late 20th century some architects were really marginalising themselves saying, 'Oh, we don't do that'. Richard Rogers famously said that we're getting down to being responsible only for the outer eighth of an inch of a building, which is probably the biggest own goal an architect has ever scored."

Those architects who are interested in the building process have tended to leave the profession, Saxon says, citing Skanska's Keith Clarke or Mace's Bob White. "That talent should really have remained within the architecture profession, with architects leading much more than they do. Those who did want to get involved in getting things done went into construction or management. But many architects are increasingly retreating from reality, so you get a kind of academic architecture that doesn't know how to keep the water out, how to deliver to programme, or how buildings work."

Under Saxon, BDP steered a canny course, producing buildings that were neither "academic" nor transparently commercial, while embracing the PFI (it built, and now operates, a school) and contracting (it acts as a specialist contractor in the IT sector). The mix works: BDP has the largest number of architects of any UK practice – 300 in all – and employs 850 people. Last year it turned over £50m in professional fees and a further £10m in contracting.

Saxon has been at BDP all his working life, starting in the firm's Manchester office in 1966. Almost uniquely among senior architects, he has a prodigious appetite for pan-industry committees, the details of which sprawl over seven lines of his listing in Debrett's People of Today. Most recently, he sat on the strategic forum, and chaired the Reading Construction Forum prior to its incorporation into Be last autumn.

Personal effects

Who’s in your family?
I’m married to Anne, who’s a lawyer. We have no children – deliberately.
Neither of us wanted children. I believe people who like kids should have as many as they like and those that don’t shouldn’t be pilloried.
Where do you live?
Battersea, London. We have, extravagantly, got a second home in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. It’s a retirement project.
Why Phoenix?
It costs less to fly to Phoenix than a first-class rail fare to Manchester – £200-250 return. The wilderness is quite close. There are brilliant plants and animals, wonderful light, wonderful landscapes. You can see 200 miles when you open your curtains in the morning. Right now it’s 75° there. And petrol is just over a dollar a gallon.
Isn’t that all a it unsustainable?
Sure, yes. I have a 4 tonne air-conditioner, a lawn where I shouldn’t have a lawn, all that stuff. It’s deeply sinful but I’ve earned it.