Simon Wyatt talks about the need to improve building quality, collaboration and diversity
Building magazine is 180 years old this year. What lessons about the built environment should we take from the past?
If there’s one great lesson that we as an industry should take from the past, I think it’s not to overlook the advantages of simplicity when it comes to design.
We’ve become obsessed with technology and drive for efficiency, and we’ve forgotten the basics of space, volume, mass, light and passive ventilation. We should instead bring it back to basics, focusing on passive building form and function, with a fabric first approach to design.
Who or what has had the most positive impact on construction in the past couple of decades?
In the last few years, the drive for net zero carbon has definitely had big a role in reshaping our industry and what it will look like in the future. It has forced us to reconsider how we design, and whether the traditional methods of construction are still relevant at a time when we must design for changing climates, the phase out of fossil fuels and net zero carbon. It has been great to see LETI and other industry groups bringing the industry together like never before in an effort to set targets and find solutions.
What does the construction industry do well and why?
This is a really difficult question to answer because there are so many challenges and things we could be doing better as an industry. One thing we do well is provide lots of jobs and contribute significantly to the economy as a result. We’re also training the next generation of construction professionals on the job, helping them to upskill and deliver best quality projects.
In recent years, I’ve also seen the industry start to diversify, with younger people getting more of a voice in the future of the industry than they have in the past. That said, when it comes to diversity, we still have a long way to go, so while we are doing it better, I wouldn’t say we are doing it well just yet.
When it comes to innovation, there’s a huge amount going on, from the development of new building materials and investment in modular construction, to industry-led initiatives like NABERS that are helping us lead the way toward a greener future despite a lack of policy and regulation. On the flip side, all of this is expensive, so while there is a lot of great stuff happening in isolation, it’s not getting embedded because of regulations, a resistance to change, and of course, an increasing focus on cost.
What does construction industry do badly and why?
There are always things our industry can do better, and that’s a good thing, because without the drive to improve we would never change the way we do things. The biggest issue is probably building quality and the race to the bottom. We are so obsessed with margins and construction cost that projects are often bottom-line driven rather than being created with a view of their wider added values, such as occupant wellbeing, environmental impacts, social value and biodiversity gains.
I also think we could be a lot better at collaboration, working together to find smarter more efficient solutions rather than in silos. This has a knock-on effect on innovation, which is happening in small pockets of the industry, but is failing to translate into something that is industry changing. As a result, innovation is poor, and so is productivity, because we are not being efficient in the way we work together as an industry. The construction industry comes across as one of the least innovative and least productive industries we have in the country, and that is something that needs to change.
Diversity is also something we all know we do not do well in this industry. There are initiatives in place, and things are improving, but not at a rate that meets our goals or changes the way our industry is viewed and that is part of the problem. There is a general resistance to change from the old guard and this impacts our ability to diversify, attract new talent and bring the next generation through.
Building safety is also an ever-present concern, but as yet, policy and regulation are not in place to ensure there is a standardised approach. Despite catastrophic events like the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the industry still hasn’t mobilised, the building safety act is a step in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go.
Standardisation and modern methods of construction will be the key to improving the productivity of the construction industry whilst making it easier to transition to a circular construction economy. But its process is slow with constant resistance from traditional sources within the industry.
We are improving on all these things and there is hope that we will achieve them and improve the image of our industry, but there’s still a long way to go.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen during your career in construction?
The drive toward digitalisation is definitely the biggest change I’ve seen in my career. It’s still in its infancy but we are slowly moving in the right direction with innovation in smart and digital twin technology. Digitalisation helps us see how buildings perform and improves our delivery, and this can only be a good thing as we seek to design, build and operate buildings that will achieve net zero in use.
What do you think will have changed by the time Building celebrates its 200th anniversary?
Hopefully we will have met our net zero carbon targets and decarbonised the built environment. That’s 28 million private homes and millions of square feet of offices, schools, hospital and retail units that need to be retrofitted within the next couple of decades. That’s obviously a massive and daunting challenge but it’s also a huge opportunity for our industry and a challenge we should embrace to ensure we have a positive impact on the world moving forward.
There’s a lot of talk about net zero carbon in our industry, but thus far very little conversation around resilience, which in my mind is crucial as we have already reached over 1 degree of warmer and will almost certainly miss the 1.5-degree target. This has and will continue to lead to more extreme weather events and natural disasters. Now, we must prepare for what is to come, designing, building and retrofitting to ensure the built environment can cope with these events, like drought, heat waves, extreme temperatures, forest fires, flash flooding and storms.
If there is one thing individuals and firms could do to improve construction and the built environment, what would it be?
The biggest thing we can all do is collaborate. Historically this is not something we do well and this needs to change, especially since the government has been so slow to provide lasting regulation of late. The challenges we face are shared, particularly around net zero carbon which is being driven by the impending climate crisis. We cannot meet them alone. We need to share best practice and guidance so we can all achieve our net zero carbon aspirations and overcome the challenges.
This shouldn’t be difficult to achieve, we already have numerous industry organisations working together to push the industry forward without the necessary regulation. The NABERS UK scheme is an excellent example of this, and UKGBC and LETI are also bringing the industry together to provide solutions. However, these are the exceptions, not the rule, and there is much more that we as an industry can do to enable lasting change.
What is the best thing government can do to support the industry?
It’s simple. We need clear policy and legislation that covers both embodied carbon of construction and limits operational energy within all buildings in use. This will go a long way to helping us achieve our net zero carbon aspirations and it’s disappointing that thus far the government has been so slow to act.
What do you hope the Building the Future Commission can achieve? And what role can you play?
My hope is that the Building the Future Commission will enable lasting industry collaboration around net zero carbon solutions and best practice. I’m proud to be part of that journey, to be part of the conversation, a voice for industry collaboration and to help set the standard for best practice. Together we can help unite the industry together around shared goals.
What is your favourite building/piece of infrastructure and why?
I think the project that has impressed me most in the last couple of decades is the regeneration of King Cross in London. The scheme’s scale and ambition are laudable and at the heart of the development is the conservation and restoration of a number of the existing buildings whilst supplementing them with high quality, low carbon developments. We have been involved in a number of the developments there and the collaboration and enthusiasm for the project has always been present. It shows that regeneration can be done sympathetically whilst creating communities and driving social value.
Tell us one thing you are passionate about outside of work
My kids. I have a six-year-old daughter and three-year-old son and love spending time with them and introducing them to natural world, either going on cycle rides or exploring the local woods and streams.
Simon Wyatt, sustainability partner at Cundall
Building the Future Commission
Coming up on the Building the Future commission:
In the coming weeks we will:
- Host our first regional roundtable with our partner Constructing Excellence in the East of England region in mid March
- Convene our first commissioner panel meeting at the end of March
- Interview two big hitters in the world of infrastructure for the infrastructure stream
- Examine whether the qualifications landscape needs to change and assess whether more flexibility is needed for our education and skills stream
- Investigate how for-profit affordable housing can deliver the homes we need for the housing and planning stream
- Assess a new model of procurement used by the Ministry of Defence for the project delivery and digital stream
- Look at models of flexible working in the industry for the workplace, culture and leadership stream
About the commission
The Building the Future Commission is a year-long project, launched to mark Building’s 180th anniversary, to assess potential solutions and radical new ways of thinking to improve the built environment.
The major project’s work will be guided by a panel of 19 major figures who have signed up to help guide the commission’s work culminatuing culminate in a report published at the end of the year.
The commissioner include figures from the world of contracting, housing development, architecture, policy-making, skills, design, place-making, infrastructure, consultancy and legal.
The commissioners include Lord Kerslake, former head of the civil service, Katy Dowding, executive vice president at Skanska, Richard Steer, chair of Gleeds, Lara Oyedele, president of the Chartered Institute of Housing, Mark Wild, former boss of Crossrail and chief executive of SGN and Simon Tolson, senior partner at Fenwick Elliott. See the full list here.
The project is looking at proposals for change in eight areas:
- Education and skills
- Housing and planning
- Building safety
- Project delivery and digital
- Workplace culture and leadership
- Creating communities
Building the Future will also undertake a countrywide tour of roundtable discussions with experts around the regions as part of a consultation programme in partnership with the regional arms of industry body Constructing Excellence. It will also set up a young person’s advisory panel.
We will also be setting up an ideas hub and we want to hear your views.