Plenty to smile about: (l-r) Wes Beaumont, Philip Gobvu, Gemma Concannon, Richard Smith, Jeremy Fox
Where will 2013 take construction? Not into growth and prosperity, unless you’re a hardened optimist. Nevertheless, the industry is moving forward, rethinking tried-and-tested methods because they’re no longer working, no longer appropriate or no longer delivering a margin. Most evidently on BIM, but also on off-site construction, cost benchmarking and apprenticeships, the industry is taking up long-held ideas whose time has finally come.
At the same time, construction is increasingly looking to innovate its way to profit in the depressed low-margin landscape of the “New Normal”. But if innovation in 2000-10 focused on the new products and systems that went into buildings, then the past three or four years has been about innovation in the processes that actually build them — a field that draws on a wider range of talents and ideas across the industry.
The five young people featured on our cover are part of this drive towards better construction outcomes. The initiatives they’re progressing — Wes Beaumont on BIM, Jeremy Fry on innovation capture, Philip Gobvu on health and safety, Richard Smith on biodiversity and Gemma Concannon on employee diversity — are all part of a modernising agenda that will define 2013 and beyond.
Professionals of all ages can sign up to these goals, but our group is progressing meaningful change at an early stage in their careers. So what factors are helping our modernisers — and others like them — make a difference? Counter-intuitively, in the depressed economic climate of the New Normal, younger managers often benefit from the steep decline in average contract values. Major companies taking on more £0-£5m jobs creates more platforms for responsibility — and visibility within the company.
Another key factor is a growing corporate culture that backs up younger managers’ ideas. Lucynda Jensen MCIOB of Morgan Sindall is project managing a £4.9m school extension project at the age of 26. Formerly of Bovis LendLease, which sponsored her construction management degree, she says: “I’ve always found senior management is happy to listen, although you do have to put ideas forward in a sensible, costed ways.”
At Mace, risk manager Celeste Williams-Condor MCIOB has encountered a similar culture. “There’s good liaison between the top end of the company, and the graduates and people on the graduate training scheme. Our directors are very forthcoming in working with the younger generation, and making them feel they’re involved.”
Another factor is their education, which is more likely to be at university level than was the case for previous generations. “We had 25 people on our course all sponsored by top companies, chatting in the pub about how different contractors operate, what one company is trying or what didn’t work somewhere else,” says Jensen. “Our generation has had a network from being part of graduate schemes in the industry.”
“A lot of my fellow students [on a Masters in Construction Project Management at London South Bank University] are already working in the industry, you can speak to people, find out what’s happening in other companies and spot trends,” agrees Williams-Condor, who also chairs the London branch of Novus, the CIOB’s UK-wide networking and support group for young people.
The under-35s generation has also grown up to be networked technologically. Kier’s Wes Beaumont says: “Younger people were brought up in the digital age, with Facebook and MySpace. So they have different take on data-sharing — the older generation think information is knowledge and knowledge is power, whereas younger people think if an idea is worthwhile, let’s pick it up and try it.”
This generation has also benefited from support from the industry’s established representative structures, including spin-off groups for younger professionals, such as Novus and Generation for Construction (G4C) from Constructing Excellence. Three of our group are working through the industry’s collaborative structures — the Strategic Forum, the UK Contractors Group, and the new BIM 2050 Group aligned to the BIM Task Group.
But another factor that favours the younger generation is simple. Call it the protective optimism of youth or confidence born of inexperience, but the empowerment that comes from having a whole career ahead of you definitely helps. “Of course we’re important — we bring life to the party,” says Vinci’s Richard Smith. “We are the future, we will continue in the industry when it comes out of the downturn. Some people have lost their passion [for construction], and we bring it back.”
Richard Smith, 30
Group environmental manager, Vinci
BSc Environmental Management
The Great Crested Newt, its numbers dwindling, object of general derision and regular pawn in development battlegrounds, can’t have an easy life. But if Richard Smith gets his way, newt and construction should be able to live together on better terms.
Smith chairs the Strategic Forum’s Biodiversity Working Group, which is pulling together a coalition of construction and ecology experts to lobby the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for a new approach to conserving Great Crested Newts. Broadly speaking, the intention is to shift the focus away from protecting individual newts, to protecting larger populations. For project teams, this could replace the expense and disruption of applying for licences and installing “newt fences” with off-site habitat enhancement measures.
The underlying problem, Smith explains, is the transposition of the EU Habitats Directive into the UK Habitats Regulations. “At the moment, it’s very black and white — if you find one on your site, you’ve got to protect it at all costs,” he says. “But then the industry spends hundreds of thousands on measures that aren’t actually conserving newts, they just run from one side of the fence to the other. Yes, we want to conserve the Great Crested Newt, but to do it in a proportionate and pragmatic way.”
Smith is convening an advisory panel, drawing on bodies such as the Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust as well as industry representatives, which will draw up recommendations for Defra and Natural England. If the approach works for newts, Smith is optimistic that it could also trim bureaucracy and improve outcomes on the conservation of other species, such as bats.
Under Smith, the Strategic Forum has also been involved in the drafting process for BS42020 Biodiversity — Code of Practice for Planning and Development, a new standard to guide clients, consultants and local authorities on biodiversity surveys. Smith hopes the new standard will establish a common approach, giving everyone more confidence in the system.
A fairly rare breed himself, Smith has a degree in environmental science but a background in construction. “I started as chain lad — I was the guy on site holding the pogo stick for the surveyors,” he says. He wrote to the chief executive of then employer, Norwest Holst, to ask for sponsorship through university. Six years after graduating, he was appointed to run environmental policy at Vinci.
Jeremy Fox, 34
Innovation manager, Skanska Technology
MSc in Sustainable Construction
Developing an app to “crowd source” innovative ideas from Skanska staff
Innovation manager is a fairly novel job title in construction, but the nature of the industry also makes it an increasingly necessary one. In the current economic climate, the difference between winning or losing a contract — or breaking even or profit — could lie in good, original ideas. So Skanska set up an Innovation Centre two years ago, where Jeremy Fox is part of a team nurturing ideas from concept to commercialisation. But at the same time, Fox is also championing a smartphone app that will allow Skanska staff to memo their ideas and send them directly to the innovation team.
“In the past, people have come up with ideas that don’t necessarily go any further. People don’t have the time, energy or resources to push their ideas,” admits Fox. “But with the app we’re crowd-sourcing ideas from the tools up, and empowering a lot of Skanska staff. We hope to find solutions that would be untapped without the app.”
The app is being developed with financial support from the Knowledge Transfer Partnership, a fund run by the government’s Technology Strategy Board that links industry with academic expertise — in this case from Reading University. Using the app, staff will be able to see colleagues’ suggestions as they are posted, and there will also be a news feed with updates on an idea’s progress. Alternatively, anyone with a problem to solve can submit a “challenge” to colleagues — and wait for the ideas to roll in.
But as Fox says, “ideas capture is the easy bit — taking it further is harder”. So he will work with “innovation champions” throughout Skanska’s operating units to foster ideas, but always involving the originator of the idea. The Innovation Centre will also help to access funding, either from within Skanska or by applying for grants.
The Innovation Centre has already chalked up several successes, including a trial for Near Site Manufacture of construction components, a remote control device that allows site managers to switch off equipment at a distance, and an online “swap shop” where a site with left over goods can be matched with projects that need them.
Fox arrived in construction through an unusual route. After a degree in industrial design, he worked in IT while project managing residential developments with his architect father. As this sideline began to sideline his IT career, he became interested in improving the construction processes he saw on site, leading to his MSc degree in Sustainable Construction.
Gemma Concannon, 28
HR manager, Vinci
LLM in International Law
Promoting diversity and inclusion
A common problem with corporate strategies is that they forever remain strategies: documents that signal a company’s intentions without impacting on their actions. That was the case when Vinci first decided to embark on a journey to improve diversity within the business — but that was before Gemma Concannon.
Realising that creating a working environment where everyone feels valued was too vital to be left as a pdf on an Intranet, she made the case to managers and directors that Vinci should target Investors in Diversity accreditation — in just 18 months.
She then helped put together a new Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Group, which has drawn up the action plan to ensure Vinci joins Shepherd and Interserve as the industry IiD early adopters.
“We’re a larger company than Shepherd, and the larger you are, the harder it is to get accreditation — there are a lot of people to bring on board and get motivated. Personally I’d have done it quicker — I want to get it done and see it make an impact.”
In addition, she has worked with Vinci’s head of learning and development on a training plan that supports the overall diversity agenda. In drama training for managers, actors dramatise various situations, including site banter and inappropriate questions for interviews. “It’s about holding a mirror up, people sometimes think site banter is okay, but if it’s an actor doing it in front of you, out of context, you start to think about how it affects other people.”
Concannon wants to get away from the perception that “diversity” is about demographics. “We want to have an inclusive working environment for everybody where people feel they are respected — it’s about respecting everyone. Statistics are too simple, it needs to be about more than that.”
But demographics have their place: Concannon also sits on the UK Contractors Group diversity working group, which monitors the employment statistics of UKCG members and shares best practice.
As her example shows, the industry needs young peoples’ drive and motivation, and Concannon has also come up with a programme to foster that. Vinci is the first construction company to sign up to the Duke of Edinburgh Business Gold for under 25s, an 18-month programme that includes expeditions, volunteering and physical activity and a business skills element. Vinci’s volunteers are working with the Construction Youth Trust and the Prince’s Trust, maximising the benefit for the industry.
Wes Beaumont ICIOB, 29
Head of BIM Implementation, Kier Construction
BSc Construction Management
Bringing the principles of “Integrated Project Delivery” to BIM in the UK
BIM is such a complex field for contractors that it sometimes feels too vast and slippery to grasp. But that’s not an issue that’s troubled Wes Beaumont since he visited California to study the part BIM plays in Integrated Project Delivery, the American risk-and-reward sharing contract model underpinned by BIM collaboration.
Using a £2,000 grant from the CIOB under its Faculty of Architecture and Surveying scholarship programme, and with support from Kier Beaumont studied contractor Turner Construction’s $160m Temecula Hospital project. It was built by a team of seven companies formed into a special-purpose vehicle: two contractors, the architect, and the electrical, mechanical, plumbing and fire protection consultants.
That slimline team, working on a target cost contract that placed a slice of its projected profit at risk, achieved an out-turn cost a further $1.5m below budget. Observing life in the “big room” where the entire team worked, Beaumont saw professionals from different firms resolve issues by asking themselves “how does this affect my project?” rather than “how does this affect my company?”
But Beaumont’s further epiphany was realising that the recent was also about reducing the number of stakeholders. “Why are we so adversarial? Because projects are so complex, with lots of interdependencies among stakeholders and specialists — it only needs one to break down and there’s a knock-on effect.”
In California, BIM and IPD had revived the concept of contractor as multi-skilled, entrepreneurial master builder. “In 1711 Sir Christopher Wren designed the structure of St Paul’s cathedral, then packaged the work to craftsmen on lump sum contracts. Today, we’ve got away from the idea of a single entity that can design and build something. Here, just seven organisations had the skill to design and build a hospital.”
So for Beaumont, the promise of BIM is that it will recreate a world where a contractor can release efficiencies not just through BIM data sharing, but by dispensing with multiple advisers and specialists. Beaumont was sponsored by Kier through his degree while working part-time as an assistant site manager, and he has now embarked on a masters at Salford on BIM and interdisciplinary design. He also sits on the BIM 2050 working group, a multi-disciplinary team of young professionals working alongside the government’s BIM Task Group.
Philip Gobvu ICIOB
Software developer, Handsam
BSc Construction Management
Modernising health and safety on site
While the industry is mobilising for digital construction, many site offices are stuck in the rearguard, filled with lever-arch files detailing life on site. Many will be filled with health and safety records: photocopies of operatives’ qualifications, signing in sheets, induction records, near miss reports.
But Philip Gobvu is working on an EU-funded project that promises to save a few trees. The Knowledge Exchange and Enterprise Network supports projects that take ideas from one industry and applies them in another — in this case, adapting an online health and safety system used by 1,000 schools and colleges for construction. Rather than focusing on legal compliance and imposing a system around it, the aim is to create system — for iPads and smartphones — that responds to how the industry works.
“Things at the moment are just too laborious,” says Gobvu. “On a large site, if you’re the manager and someone says they need a hot works permit, you might have to walk quite a distance from where you are to the office and back. But with this, you can just open up an iPad and do a permit online.”
Gobvu’s role as project manager for software company Handsam is to gather information on H&S practice on site and develop the system with site managers’ feedback, drawing on the participation of Willmott Dixon at two projects in the west Midlands. “The idea is to change the industry culture, but from the inside — it will work the way the site managers want it to work.”
But as well as drawing on the best of current practice, Gobvu is also canvassing the site managers of tomorrow — students at Birmingham School of the Built Environment, Northampton University and Molton College. “Students tend to ask more perceptive questions, it helps us channel the direction we want to go in and gives us a broader perspective,” says Gobvu.
Gobvu, who graduated in 2011 after site management experience, an HNC and a foundation degree, was appointed as part of the terms of the KEEN grant, which specifies the employment of a recent graduate. But the recruiters can’t have found many candidates as well qualified. “I worked through an agency during my studies — I also have a fork-lift licence so it’s easy for me to relate to what’s happening on site.”