Local school children joined industry representatives at Canary Wharf’s massive Wood Wharf project as part of Build UK’s Open Doors event. Ariana Hashtrudi went along to observe

Presentation photo

Visitors at the Open Doors event held at Wood Wharf last month

“A lot of them want to work in construction and they don’t realise how vast that is, how many different roles there are, whether they work mobile, on their own or for a small company, or for massive developments like this.”

Paige Crosby, careers lead at Newhaven School in Greenwich, was accompanying a group of 15 and 16-year-olds on a trip to Canary Wharf Group’s Wood Wharf site, which will eventually deliver 3,600 homes along with 2,500,000sq ft of commercial space, 266,000sq ft of retail area and 290,00sq ft of open space.

The visit by the year 11 pupils, along with other teenagers and construction industry professionals, was part of Build UK’s Open Doors event, which aims to raise awareness among younger people and the wider public about possible career paths in construction. It introduces them to building sites and projects.

The visitors gathered at 20 Water Street, a 14-storey office building in Wood Wharf, to hear from senior figures at Canary Wharf Group talking about the 3,600-home scheme and about construction as a career.

What is happening at Wood Wharf?

To kick things off, the group, which is the developer for all the site’s buildings, discussed the future of the project. The development, which began in 2014, will eventually deliver 20 buildings and 3,600 new homes. The masterplan has been designed by Allies and Morrison working alongside Glenn Howells Architects. 

Wood Wharf 2015 B

Source: Francesca Clemens, Canary Wharf Group

Early construction work at Wood Wharf in 2015

Wood Wharf has completed a 12-storey building consisting of 82 studio apartments for private sale, designed by Karakusevic Carson.

HTA Design has designed a hotel containing 279 small rooms with kitchenettes that can be rented for a few months as well as 12 floors of service apartments, which should be built by the end of this year. 

By December 2026, a 29-storey tower for affordable rent will be completed, designed by Darling Associates. A private rental, 53-storey build-to-rent tower designed by Kohn Pederson Architects is also expected to be finished by February 2027.

There was talk of a commercial office being developed, however Andy Unwin, project executive at Canary Wharf Group, said this would depend on “market demand”.

Amit Oberoi, chairman of the Considerate Constructors Scheme (CCS) a not-for-profit organisation that aims to improve standards in the construction industry, said the development would maintain some of its historic context. When asked about how Canary Wharf will become more residential, and how this might affect its heritage as a major financial hub, Oberoi said the group had handled the issue with caution. 

“When you have a vision, and you take a little from the old into the new, you have to be very sensitive about how you manage the heritage parts,” he said. ”I think they are doing quite a good job in the sense that they are trying to merge the two.”

Any transformation of an area is a challenge, Oberoi added, but it is good management – “having a good key stakeholder engagement, bringing the community with you, explaining the reasons why you are doing it” – that makes a difference. 

Immediately east of Wood Wharf in Blackwall, the Coldharbour conservation area features a range of 18th and 19th-century listed buildings. The India Dock conservation area is 1km north-west of the site and the Blackwall basin is grade-I listed.  

Others involved in the Wood Wharf presentation were Dean Eves, associate director at Canary Wharf Group, and Ashley Handley-Collins, senior project manager at Canary Wharf Contractors.

Did the event open doors for young people?

While learning about the Wood Wharf development and the wider transformation of the Canary Wharf area was undoubtedly interesting, what mattered was whether the event was successful in its goal of inspiring the young attendees to consider a career in construction.

Alfie Baker, a student at Newhaven School, said he got a better understanding of working in a trade. While he wants to be an electrician and is thinking of doing an apprenticeship in the field, Baker said he was “up for anything” and that the event taught him about the importance of “working as a team” in the industry.

Oberoi said that he thought team work is important in construction: “It’s an industry where you will work together to solve complex problems.”

Questions about diversity and accessibility were also touched on. “A lot of our students are from underprivileged backgrounds and not mainstream education so they want to feel like they are part of it,” Crosby said.  

Wood Wharf 2023 A

Source: Francesca Clemens, Canary Wharf Group

Towers under development at Wood Wharf in 2023

Ryhs Mumford, a student at Newhaven School, initially wanted to do bricklaying but is now thinking of being a carpenter. “It opened my eyes to seeing what else is out there,” he said.

When asked where he sees himself in the next five years, Mumford said: “I hope to see myself in a house, building it, having my own construction company. Getting kids on it as well.

“When it comes to bricklaying, it’s not just about laying bricks, it’s also about safety, working as a team, checking all the security of the tools.”

While some people his age have a realistic understanding about the construction industry, Mumford thought others have misconceptions.

A study, by the Chartered Institute of Building and Sir Robert McAlpine found that young people still perceive the construction industry as being “dirty, male-orientated, unsafe and manual.” A 2015 YouGov report on the career choices of 18 to 24-year-olds found that only 3% of this age group looked for jobs in this industry.

So, where to now? 

But despite the fact that the industry is facing these issues, Oberoi was eager to encourage the visitors down the career path of construction. His aim is to “help the next generation feel that passion and enthusiasm” and “to demystify or debunk the idea that construction is a dirty environment”.

He added: ”The key to sustainability is, are we looking after our workers that we are trying to bring into our industry? We don’t want to burn them out.”

The Canary Wharf Group respresentatives admitted that work still needs to be done to improve mental health provision within the industry. They discussed how part of their youth work involves getting young people to exercise and do sponsored runs.

Oberoi described construction as an industry where employees can either come in with little experience and develop their skillset, or they could come in and make the most of “existing skills”.

He added: ”We have got to bring in half a million new people to construction, so what we need to do is showcase the brilliance that is going on. Open Doors is a great way to facilitate discussion about leaving a legacy. If you build something, it will be there forever – the good, the bad, the ugly.”

The group talked about its sustainability goals, discussing how it is uses low carbon concrete, which contains smaller levels of cement. Canary Wharf Group is aiming to be net zero by 2030.

Additionally, the group is using eco sheets for the Wood Wharf development, with recycled aluminium formed for cladding use. The future of the environment is a critical area that the industry needs to focus on, Oberoi said. The workforce is operating in a “diminished resource planet”.  

After an hour the event drew to a close. How many of the young people there will be attracted to work in construction remains to be seen, but what is not in doubt is that the event gave them a much better idea of the industry’s potential opportunities, while at the same time informing local people about a huge Isle of Dogs project.

 Building is the media partner for Build UK’s Open Doors initiative, which ran events from Monday 18 until Saturday 23 March this year.