Remember the decade that taste forgot? Dennis Lenard reckons that the construction industry never left it. We ask some key figures if the industry really is frozen in time
The 1980s were a strange decade. Haircuts were invariably mulleted, shoulders were rarely unpadded and the UK's most popular television personality was a talking rat. All of which makes it rather galling when Dennis Lenard, the chief executive of Constructing Excellence, says British construction is "stuck in the 1980s and hasn't moved on", as he did recently in an article in the Financial Times.

But is he right? Is construction, like some lonely Duran Duran fan, stuck in a 1980s time bubble? Building went in search of some industry experts to find out.

The client
Back in the 1980s, developer Hammerson was busy building icons of the age such as the Brent Cross shopping centre. More recently, the company has been responsible for the redevelopment of the Bullring and Birmingham city centre. It's fair to say that Geoff Wright, projects director of Hammerson, is far from impressed with Lenard's comments. "We don't need Australians coming over here to tell us how to run our business," he says, succinctly.

Wright says the biggest transformation in the past 20 years has been a cultural one. "The adversarial approach, which was prevalent then, has gone away," he says. "Now there is more team working and partnering, which didn't exist 20 years ago."

As clients have become more sophisticated, procurement methods have evolved. "In the 1980s it was lowest-price tendering every time," says Wright. The move away from that, combined with a much greater involvement in running a project from the client, has improved a project's cost certainty. "Back in the 1980s, clients were not leading the process," Wright says. As a result a developer had to "up the price it got from a contractor on day one by 20%".

The IT specialist
The 1980s may have been the decade of mobile phones the size of your head, but they also saw the arrival of the computer on every desk in every office. "In the early 1980s, the IBM PC had just arrived," says Ian Hamilton, managing director of the Construction Industry Computing Association, somewhat nostalgically. "An IBM PC could do useful things and it would have only cost a couple of thousand pounds – so medium-sized organisations could afford them." It is a sign of how much the IT industry has moved on that after just 20 years a firm spending that amount of money can now afford a PC that is about 120 times faster, complete with enough software to publish this magazine and connected to the vast knowledge dump and communication superhighway that is the internet.

Obviously, the construction industry cannot compete with that rate of innovation, but it can profit from it. Computers are now integral to the way that buildings are conceived, designed and constructed. The rapid advance in computing hardware means that even the most basic PC can run sophisticated CAD software programmes. "In the 1980s, at best you had one CAD workstation for every three users – and the workstations were often situated in a building's entrance lobby so visitors could see just how 'high-tech' the company was," says Eric Winterkorn, of the CICA. "Twenty years ago, £250,000 would have bought a couple of workstations, a processor and a plotter; now a high-spec PC can do the same job," he adds.

The researcher
"The real development in the past 20 years has been in CAD drafting, visualisation and manufacturing tools," says Neil Noble, head of consultant Arup's research and development group. Noble says that without developments in software, many of today's iconic buildings would simply not have been built. "We could not have built Swiss Re before the advent of computing," he says.

Nobel says the increased use of IT by designers is changing the way buildings are planned by giving architects and engineers the freedom to question existing regulations. "IT is changing the way buildings are designed. Rather than comply with prescriptive regulations, the design process is now performance-based." This means designers can prove buildings are safe even if they do not comply with the existing rules.

IT is also changing the way that companies work. With the growth in use of the internet, the bigger consultants are moving work around the globe, either within the organisation or by outsourcing work to different firms to save time and money

The architect
Architect James Pickard, director of Cartwright Pickard Architects, agrees with Noble. "Some of today's architecture, such as the forms imagined by Frank Gehry, would be impossible to build without computers," he says. "In the 1980s, architecture was more rectilinear than it is today."

The other big change that has occurred is the choice of materials available to architects. "Globalisation means that a large and increasing percentage of materials are sourced from abroad, so there is a massive widening of product ranges," says Pickard. "In the 1980s, a flat roof was either waterproofed using roofing felt or asphalt. Now there are 20 systems available."

This wealth of options has changed the way that architects work. "Thirty years ago an architect would know how to detail a flat roof," says Pickard. "Now architects are doing more generic details and bringing in the supply chain to produce the actual detail," he says.

While reflecting over the past 20 years, it is always tempting to look forward to the next 20, and it is here that Pickard sees the downside of this wealth of choice. With so many construction products now sourced from abroad, Pickard's prognosis for UK construction is not optimistic. "The UK import doesn't have a manufacturing culture. And the danger for British construction is that, as construction becomes more manufacturing-orientated and technological, countries that do have a manufacturing culture, such as Sweden and Germany, will pounce on it. At the moment the construction industry is the biggest employer in this country, but slowly these jobs will go abroad."

The concrete specialist
Lenard's Financial Times article singled out the concrete industry as being particularly behind the times, referring to the reluctance of UK contractors to use post-tensioned concrete. The British Concrete Association responds that post-tensioned concrete has been used for many years in the UK. What is more, it will soon be used in constructing the floors of Manchester's shiny new Beetham Tower, Britain's tallest residential building outside London.

As well as post-tensioned concrete, the BCA can reel off a host of developments in concrete technology, such as self-compacting concrete, insulating formwork and tilt-up construction. Although Elliott insists that they have been tried on "small-scale projects", he does concede that many are not in common use, and that the UK industry is "naturally conservative". He says it is now down to UK contractors to embrace the techniques: "It is now a matter of championing these developments on real life projects in the UK."

The glass expert
One significant innovation for which we should all be thankful is the development of laminated glass, particularly for overhead glazing. Graham Dodd, Arup research and development glazing guru, says: "1980s buildings were designed with large panes of toughened glass overhead." The problem with using toughened glass was that, should a pane become damaged, it shattered, peppering the area below with thousands of glass fragments. The welcome development of transparent films that glue panes of glass together to form a laminated unit means that we need fear falling glass fragments no longer.

Echoing a popular refrain, Dodd says that the other big change to hit the glass and glazing industry has been the loss of UK-based manufacturers. "In the 1980s there would have still been some British facade manufacturers around. Now, Italian manufacturer Permasteelisa has a virtual monopoly."

Since those far-off days of the 1980s, the glazing industry has also introduced self-cleaning glass, untinted solar control coatings and larger panes. Changes to energy efficiency regulations mean that windows now have to be double glazed with low-emissivity coated glass and a U-value of 2.2 W/m2K. It is reasonable to say that Dodd is hardly overstating things when he says: "Glazing technology has moved on since the 1980s."

The contractor
The contractor is slightly more forceful. "It is nonsense to say there has been no improvement in construction since 1980," says John Spanswick, chairman and chief executive for Bovis Lend Lease Europe, Middle East and Africa. "There has been huge innovation: 50-60% of our work is with regular clients, all of which are demanding continuous improvement."

Spanswick says clients are demanding a continuous process of innovation. "We've had a global programme with BP where we build and maintain all their petrol service stations.

Over nine years the amount of innovation has been massive. We've cut costs 50% through changes in the construction process, the use of prefabrication and by standardisation of design," he says.

If contractors don't innovate, this can have an impact on their bottom line. "Innovation is driven by clients," says Spanswick. "Remuneration is often based on performance improvements over the contract."

It is not just main contractors that are changing. Spanswick says many of the firm's specialist contractors are also innovating: "Our steelwork suppliers Severfield-Rowen and Cleveland Bridge have computerised assembly plants; our demolition contractors use robotics; and our piling contractors use a global positioning system to locate the position of piling rigs."

The trade association
Stephen Ratcliffe, chief executive of the Construction Confederation, is clearly not a fan of the 1980s. "It was with dismay and a degree of disbelief that I read Dennis Lenard's unwarranted, unfair and inaccurate claims that the UK construction industry is complacent and has not progressed during the past two decades," he says.

Ratcliffe cites one of the key improvements in the past two decades as being the introduction of PFI as a public procurement tool. "With more than 400 PFI projects completed and a further 130 in the pipeline, significant improvements in meeting deadlines and budgets have been demonstrated, earning praise from the National Audit Office and the Treasury. Longer-term approaches to design and construction are commonplace and home secretary David Blunkett has acclaimed the 'better value for money for the taxpayer' arising out of the PFI, a system that, he says, is producing 'innovative solutions to business problems'."

Ratcliffe points out the industry is "continually finding ways to improve its practices from reducing waste on site and the barcoding of materials to the wider use of prefabrication, which has not only enhanced productivity but also brought considerable health and safety benefits".

1983 vs 2003: How much has it really changed?

At current prices, output value rose from £28bn in 1983 to £93bn in 2003. The percentage of output taken up by new work rose from 47% in 1983 to 53% in 2003. The output of new housing, measured by value, has fallen in real terms by 7% since 1983. The fall in public housing output was 22% and in private housing the fall was 3%

Output on infrastructure projects trebled during the period
The private sector’s share of infrastructure output rose from 3% in 1983 to 58% in 2003. The biggest spending growth was on railways, where there was £55m of output in 1983 and £1.3bn in 2003. The growth in spending on roads was 154%, or 30% in real terms

The government category of “other public non-housing”, which includes hospital, schools and barracks, had the strongest growth over the 20 years. This was 246% in real terms. Growth has been especially strong in schools, colleges and universities. Their combined share of new construction output in 1983 was 2.2%, and in 2003 it had risen to 7.4%. Spending on health doubled at current prices between 1998 and 2003.

Private commercial spending more than doubled in real terms. During the period, private commercial’s share of new construction output rose from 21.6% to 30.1%.

Offices are the largest subsegment; their share of new construction output has remained steady at about 10%. About 40% of the national value of new offices is for projects in Greater London.

Growth has been strong in shops and entertainment. Shops’ share of output doubled from 4% in 1983 to 8% in 2003 and entertainment’s share went from 2.8% to 5.1%.

A recent trend has been strong growth in the private education segment. At current prices, new output was £266m in 1998 and in 2003 it reached £1.4bn. In 1983, 61% of contractors’ new construction output was for the private sector. By 2003, that share had risen to 72%, due partly to privatisation of public utilities.

Greater London is the most prosperous region in the country in terms of construction output, its share of total output has been fairly consistent: In 1983, its share of total output was 14.7% and in 2003 it was 15.2%.

Output in the new private industrial segment fell 45% in real terms between 1983 and 2003. Spending on new and improved factories was especially hard hit.

Repairs and maintenance output has grown in real terms by 48% since 1983. Housing R&M has grown by 38%
Public Non-Housing R&M has fallen by 11%. The largest R&M growth has been in the private non-housing segment, where output has almost trebled in real terms since 1983.

The profile of the construction industry in 2002 was similar to 1984. In 1985 there were 167,825 firms of private contractors; in 2002 there were 166,181, of which 121,737 (73%) employed between 1 and 3 people. Between 1985 and 1990 there was a rapid growth in the number of firms, which reached a peak level of 209,793 in 1990. That number fell back to around the current level by 1996.

Calculations “in real terms” are based on constant 2000 prices.
The source of all statistics reported is Construction Market Intelligence, DTI.
Statistical analysis provided by Stephen Hughes at