The government's latest one-man ginger group for construction is its former chief scientific adviser, but, as Thomas Lane discovered, he is not just calling for radical reform. He's much more ambitious than that …
Sir John, a top industrialist, is given A government commission to produce a report on the state of Britain's building industry. Report is duly produced. Shock horror: report calls for urgent root-and-branch overhaul of outdated practices to drive efficiency.

Construction could be forgiven for thinking it has already seen this movie – but it would be wrong. The Sir John in question is Sir John Fairclough, and he has been looking into the sector's research and development practices on a one-off basis. Although approached by ministers to head the strategic forum after Sir John Egan steps down this summer, Fairclough declined. "I am not of the industry and I think it has got to be somebody who is a powerful individual from the industry," he says.

Fairclough's brief encounter with the industry began last year when then construction minister Nick Raynsford asked him to conduct a review of the government's £48m annual research spend, half of which is channelled through the privatised BRE, small research bodies and individual projects. The other half is spent on research in universities.

Ministers briefed Fairclough to come up with a plan that would fulfil three ambitions: to research changes to the Building Regulations, to improve health and safety and to make UK construction more competitive and sustainable.

There's no doubting that Fairclough was a plausible choice for the job. He was chief scientific adviser to the Thatcher government, and spent 30 years in the computer and manufacturing industries, eventually heading IBM's UK laboratories. Now a spritely 71, he still holds an armful of directorships and chairmanships in high-tech firms.

But his report, Rethinking Construction Innovation and Research, is much more than a boffin's shopping list. Fairclough found the fragmented nature of the industry meant the research programme was unfocused, that work was being duplicated and that the results of project-based research were not being made widely available. He challenges the industry to take control of its research agenda, rather than allowing the government to call the shots.

The first step is to develop a strategic plan for how construction can improve the quality of life in Britain. Once this has been done he wants the industry, led by the strategic forum, to come up with a research-led programme for making it happen. "There is a vision dimension," says Fairclough. "The industry needs to say, we have a really important role in your life, Mr Public; we make a contribution to your quality of life." This includes everything from the quality of the built environment to the efficiency of hospitals and schools.

The industry needs to say: we have a really important role in your life, Mr Public

One implication of this is that construction will have to start matching the research and development spend of other industries. "The competitiveness of the industry is very much influenced by innovation, of which R&D is an important driver," Fairclough says.

Even though Fairclough is very hands-off in his approach to construction, there are some issues that he feels strongly about. The recruitment crisis tops his list. "I would like to see the industry identify a more general qualification that spans architecture to the social science of what makes a good building and set up a curriculum." Students could then take higher degrees and specialise.

The other issue that Fairclough holds dear is sustainability; he believes this should form the basis of long-term research. It would also act as the basis for relationships between the government, construction and the universities.

"Sustainability is not just about energy efficiency or reduction of waste; it's about reusable materials and the technology of putting it together, and how does the building have a 100-year life on the outside and a 10-year life on the inside?" He adds: "Our bright young people feel they want to make a difference and sustainability is a subject that would capture their imagination".

Fairclough urges the industry to communicate more with universities to ensure that their research stays relevant. "£40m a year is spent on construction-related research in universities and that money is going for free," he points out. Meanwhile, the government will continue to fund research because of the impact the built environment has on our quality of life. It also procures about 40% of construction output, so any research that improves the efficiency of the industry is in the government's interest.

Personal effects

What electronic gizmos do you carry?
I am driven by personal computing; I’ve got my whole life on my laptop. I have got a Palm Pilot, which I couldn’t live without.
How do you relax?
My hobbies are cabinet making and gardening. I am in the middle of making a coffee table out of cherrywood for my wife.
What are you reading at the moment?
The manual for my new digital camcorder. I had my old one stolen when we were in Barbados in February.
Any other scientists in the family?
My daughter has a degree in ergonomics, my middle son is an IT chap – he runs a network for an international group of brokers – and my oldest son is a contract manager for BAE Systems.