Construction’s institutions may have been dealt a deadly blow last week, when they were attacked as isolationist and threatened with merger plans. We report on how reforms could spell the end of professional bodies as we know them

Behind their smiled enthusiasm, the judges of a construction innovation competition are in militant mood. “It’s not mergers we need, it’s murder,” says one darkly. The subject at hand is the future of Britain’s construction institutions. This panel of experts has lost patience with the plethora of “archaic” bodies – ranging from the Institution of Civil Engineers to the Royal Institute of British Architects – that they consider a barrier to integration. They want to burn the dead wood – to create a single Institute of the Built Environment. Remarkably, some of that dead wood seems willing to supply its own matches.

The prosecution

The call for a cull of the industry’s professional bodies was sparked by an entry at the Construct Award for Innovation and Excellence. The judges were impressed by a London university’s proposal for a work-based scheme that would rotate construction students around various industry sectors before they decided on a specific career. Peter Rogers, one of the award judges and director of developer Stanhope, feared construction institutions would block to such a scheme to protect their specialisms. “We had a group of students showing us a way to get people to work together through a wider education,” he says. “But who controls education? It’s not just the universities, it’s the institutions too, through their culture and tradition.”

Rogers claims the specialist nature of professional bodies hinders co-operation between disciplines. “It’s a case of ‘I’m an engineer; engineering is the best profession; the Institution of Civil Engineers is the best institution,’” he says. “The client wants a cohesive product, but the institutions do little to encourage this.”

Rogers’ solution to the problem – to abandon individual institutions and revoke their royal charters in favour of a single body that covers the entire building industry – is endorsed by Mark Whitby, founder of engineer Whitbybird and a past president of the ICE. He points to the influence a joint body could have on government policy on construction’s future. “The industry’s division weakens its voice when talking about the built environment,” Whitby says. “We should be leading the discussion on issues such as sustainability, but antagonism between groups is causing huge problems.”

Rogers and Whitby dismiss as half-hearted the institutions’ previous efforts to achieve greater co-operation by working together in partnerships such as the CIC Futures Group. Rogers’ accusations of isolationism are targeted mainly at engineers; in particular the ICE, which he claims axed its general building committee several years ago to pursue a narrower engineering focus “away from the intrusion of waffly architects”.

Engineering groups are the most in need of partnership, according to the reformers. Stef Stefanou, chairman of concrete contractor John Doyle, believes that merging the ICE and Institution of Structural Engineers could be a first step to integration, addressing the “massive overlap” between bodies and creating a blueprint for further change.

Expert witnesses

It's not mergers we need, it's murder

Judge at the Construct Awards for Innovation and Excellence

The ICE has taken a surprising stance in the face of such strong criticism. Douglas Oakervee, ICE chairman, is construction’s answer to Bono – emphatically endorsing a bond between warring parties. “We’re very enthusiastic about bringing disciplines together,” he says. “A single institute of the built environment is a good idea. It really is.”

But Oakervee stops short of supporting Rogers’ and Whitby’s call to revoke royal charters.

Such a rapid cull, the ICE chief proclaims, is “shotgun politics”. Oakervee prefers a softly-softly approach: “There is a one-off opportunity for reform. If things aren’t done carefully, we could do considerable damage to the industry.”

The RICS supports the idea of a single institution, but fears a gung-ho approach could create acrimony. A RICS spokesperson said: "We would be opposed to stripping away royal charters and enforcing the changes on the institutions. If it is enforced it would be divisive. It's much better that existing organisations co-operate."

Another engineering heavyweight, Nelson Ogunshakin, chief executive of the Association of Consulting Engineers (ACE), broadly endorses the proposals, but warns against tunnel vision: “The current leaders of the professional institutions need to see the bigger picture of an industry that requires an integrated approach to delivering project requirements.”

The defence

Many institutions, however, are angered by the ICE’s and ACE’s support for a merged body. George Ferguson, RIBA president, while agreeing bodies need to work together more closely, opposes any suggestion that charters should be revoked. “The idea is trendy, rather than measured,” he says. “I think we can move closer together simply by increasing communication with others involved in the urbanisation game.”

While we endorse collaboration, we will never be willing to lose our independent status

Keith Eaton, ISE chief executive

Michael Brown, deputy chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Building, also thinks co-operation is needed rather than mergers.

“Do we want to create one single, very large, professional institution, which by definition will be more bureaucratic and resistant to change?

“The alternative is a small number of institutions that are more flexible, with healthy competition between them, providing real choice for members and serving the industry better.”

The most defensive body is the Institute of Structural Engineers (ISE), which even dismisses Stefanou’s moderate vision of a joint engineering institution. “There will be a total and unconditional ‘no’ from the ISE to these proposals,” asserts Keith Eaton, ISE chief executive. “We gained our royal Charter in 1934 because we are a specialist. While we endorse collaboration with other groups, we will never be willing to lose our independent status.”

Rogers claims that the ISE’s traditionalist stance highlights the need to dispense with the closed-door attitude. “Many of these institutions are simply old men’s clubs. Their over-reliance on their own tradition makes them intimidating, not only to other members of the construction industry, but also to women and younger people.”

But according to Eaton, it is Rogers and his fellow reformers that are out of touch. “Institutions like ours have changed immensely in recent years. Fifteen percent of our members are now women, and we run regular activities for young people. I can’t go along with that.”

Do you endorse or oppose an institutional cull? Email

The construction industry's institutional heritage

  • Institution of Civil Engineers: Founded in 1818 and granted its royal charter by King George IV in 1828. Queen Elizabeth II granted a new charter in 1975. It represents more than 70,000 civil engineers in more than 140 countries.

  • Institution of Structural Engineers: The ISE came into being at the Ritz Hotel in London in 1908 as the Concrete Institute. In 1922 it was renamed to its existing moniker. Its royal charter followed 12 years later. In the mid-20s it had just 1700 members but this has now grown to 21,000.

  • Royal Institute of British Architects: RIBA received its royal charter when it was founded in 1837. Today it has 32,000 members across 100 countries, 83% of whom are based in the UK.

  • Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors: The RICS was founded in 1868 and Queen Victoria granted its royal charter in 1881. It has 110,000 members spread across 120 countries.

  • Institution of Mechanical Engineers: ImechE was founded in 1847, but was not granted its royal charter until 1930. It currently has about 78,000 members drawn from 120 countries.