Today, Rogers wants to project his serious side. After a summer of speculation, he has finally been appointed chairman of the strategic forum – the construction super-body set up by the government a year ago to modernise the industry. He began his two-year term this week, taking over from founding chairman Sir John Egan.
He's raring to go. "I like action – I like to make things happen. The government has made it clear it wants an industry with a single voice and the industry needs that. The time is right for change."
Rogers, director at influential developer Stanhope, is a smart choice to succeed Egan. During his two decades with the firm, he has pioneered many of the innovative practices the strategic forum wants the industry to adapt as standard. Rogers was using lean construction, integrated teams and off-site fabrication long before they became Egan buzzwords. Yet he confesses he was initially sceptical about the position, as he detests talking shop. "My boredom threshold is relatively low. Generally, I've avoided getting too much involved in the industry bureaucracy. But this is very important – it's an opportunity not to be missed."
The biggest challenge is to get the message out beyond the top management of the big firms to the rest of the industry – especially to small businesses. "Take-up is still very slow. At the end of the day, if the painter on the site doesn't believe in it, you're going to struggle. Dissemination down the ranks is weak and there's a need for better communication with the industry."
He offers an anecdote to prove his point. "Before accepting, I phoned around my industry contacts because I didn't know much about the strategic forum. I was very worried because a lot of people didn't know about the forum; they hadn't heard of the initiatives. There were even some people who hadn't heard of Sir John."
This week saw the launch of the strategic forum's Accelerating Change report, which sets out Egan's continuing vision for the industry. Rogers broadly endorses the report, although he readily challenges his predecessor on some of the proposals. "I'm very nervous of the proposed independent client advisers – that creates another profession and there are already competent people who can give clients advice. Also, clients are given too much emphasis in the report. If you say it's all the client's responsibility, it gives the industry a way out and that's very dangerous. The industry has to be responsible for the product."
Rogers is determined to put the industry back in the driving seat. "We will meet half a dozen times a year. We'll have the meetings here at Stanhope's offices, not at the DTI, because it's about the industry, not government. That's an important symbol.
The forum's role will be about coming up with a few key drivers for the other industry bodies to carry out."
He has already identified four areas for action. First, he wants to see site conditions improved. "The general standard on building sites is appalling. If a site is untidy, if everything's covered in mud, we shouldn't go on it. We should turn round and say we're not attending the site meeting. If you went to a clothes shop and the clothes were lying on the floor, you'd walk out. You wouldn't put up with it." Better site discipline would improve the industry's image and reduce accidents, he says.
Second, preplanning should be standard on every project. "Most buildings are prototypes, yet we leap in with minimal research and planning. But it's easy for the professional team to give the client a detailed programme of how the building is going to be built before they start. The programme has to be signed off, or they don't start work."
Third, get the right people into the industry. "We clearly need to recruit more skilled people, more qualified people. We should be looking at multi-skilling. And we should look much harder at bringing women onto site. I think that would engender a huge culture change." He blames the outdated attitudes of senior male executives for the scandalously low number of women in construction.
My boredom threshold is relatively low. Generally I’ve avoided getting too much involved in the industry bureaucracy
The fourth target is, Rogers concedes, "a bit of a hobby horse": education. "The area that worries me most is professional education," he says. "We educate in very narrow silos; engineers, architects, surveyors and so on. They come out of university with preconceived ideas. We've got to find a way of bringing people together. I think the institutions are to blame."
He wants all courses to begin with an overview of the built environment and wants students from different courses collaborating on projects. He also wants to overhaul the way courses are validated by the professional institutions. "I want to see a dramatic change in the accreditation system. There should be other professionals from other disciplines involved in the validation process."
Rogers, 55, caught the building bug early. "I've always wanted to be involved in buildings," he says. "When I was 15, my father put me on a site a friend was running, to let me know what it was like." Brought up in London by his Italian parents, he qualified as a civil engineer, working on oil rigs in the USA and docks in Dubai. "It was fun," he recalls.
The seminal moment in his life came at the end of the 1970s when he met Sir Stuart Lipton, now Stanhope's chief executive. "I was McAlpine's agent on a big job in the City and Stuart was the client. We got on very well; we both wanted to change the industry. We had some huge rows – tremendous stuff. I got into huge trouble. I was hauled up in front of the architect – it was John Seifert – who gave me a telling-off for arguing with the client."
At Lipton's suggestion, Rogers went to work in America, landing a job as a foreman on a New York skyscraper in 1982. He was impressed: "The real difference is attitude. Quality, safety, design are better here, but in America, if you ask someone to do something, they do it. It's a no-bullshit culture."
He returned to London in 1984 to work for Lipton – who had just formed Stanhope – as his construction director. Lipton was just starting out on Broadgate, the City office development that was to set new standards in building efficiency and innovation – largely thanks to ideas Rogers imported from the States. "One of the first things I did was to take people out to America," he says.
His appointment to the strategic forum brings him unprecedented influence thanks to his powerful connections. His business partner, Lipton, is chairman of CABE, the headline-grabbing architecture watchdog; his brother, architect Richard Rogers, is once again advising the government on regeneration. This has raised eyebrows and prompted talk of the emergence of a "modernist mafia".
"Even I thought there could be a conflict of interest – Stuart and I running two of the big industry bodies and Richard advising the government," he admits, saying he raised the issue at his interview. "But the positive thing is we have a chance to actually do something. There's a cohesion now that will be of benefit to the industry."
Rogers says his brother – who is 14 years his senior – was instrumental in persuading him to accept the job. "He was very keen that I do this. He's been a mentor to me. When I was young, he was quite influential to me. We're a very tight family – remember, we're Italian."
However, Rogers is not slow to attack his brother's profession for hankering after the age when the architect was king. "An architect has changed the cladding details on one of our buildings and the roof's leaking," he says wearily. "They've very persuasive people, and the industry's not standing up to them." What does Richard think of this opinion? "He and I have lots of debate on this – but he agrees."
Rogers looks like a gaunter version of his brother, but whereas Richard is rambling of speech and formless of dress, Peter speaks with pithy eloquence and is a contender for the most stylish man in construction. Today he's wearing a grey, loose-cut Issey Miyake suit and a collarless white shirt; his red socks and belt match his trademark red spectacle frames. "I've always liked a bit of colour; it's in the family," he explains. "Life is about visual things. But that doesn't mean you have to wear a suit.
Personal effectsYou and your brother both wear collarless shirts. Who started the trend?
I picked it up from Richard, really.
Why do you never wear a tie these days?
I was made to wear a suit and tie on my first ever job. I hated it – it distanced me from the men on site. I think the idea of ties on site is stupid.
Where do you buy your glasses?
I’ve had red glasses for 20 years. It got this pair made for me in Knightsbridge.
What do you wear when you’re riding your bike?
My suit, my normal clothes. I don’t wear leathers.