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Modernise or die: The need for change in construction

Written by LetsBuild

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Just a few days ago the UK government officially presented its thoughts about Mark Farmer’s remarks concerning the need for modernization in the construction industry. As David Whysall smartly points out, the kind and embracing words towards Mark Farmer’s report don’t mean much if the government continues to avoid the discussion about actively assisting the transition to the new era through generous funding.

It also is no secret that the construction industry is most of the times really resistant towards change. According to the 2016 Mark Farmer review on the existing situation in UK construction, the current status of the field is more than alarming.

That being said, it is positive to hear that the government already is taking action toward some open issues such as the CITB reform or the modernization of the residential delivery. However, that’s not enough for the level of change that our industry envisions.

Definition of the problem

Before we dive into more detail about potential funding solutions, let’s try to define the problem.The title of Mark Farmer’s work (Modernise or Die) depicts on the most descriptive way possible the need for deep changes in construction. The review itself is focusing on the United Kingdom, but many of its points can be of great value for many different markets and countries.

First things first, we have to define the problem. In that way, we can dig in for solutions much more efficiently. In a nutshell, the main challenges for the construction sector are connected to the following points:

1. Lack of innovation
No surprise here! What has been identified as one of the main pains in the industry is its unwillingness to guide its resources, both financial and time related, towards innovation. The need for adopting new techniques in construction is more apparent than ever. It would instantly boost the whole project management process and it would lead to the creation of a more skillful and productive labor force.

2. Not enough well-trained workers
Based on the stats of Mark Farmer’s review, there will be a drop up to 20-25% in construction workers within the next ten years. The fact that a considerable amount of people working on site haven’t received the proper training both on the currently used techniques and on the upcoming innovative technologies make things even worse.

3) Serious productivity losses
As an extension of the two priorly mentioned issues, the levels of productivity losses in construction are tremendously high. Productivity losses are related to a number of different issues. All these problems come eventually down to the inability of a construction project team to stick to its initial plan. As a consequence, serious implications are arising and the bond between the industry and its customers is harmed.

4) Absence of a strong recovery plan
The lack of a solid plan that could lead, in long term, to the treatment of the industry’s’ struggles also is part of the problem. This inertia in terms of helping construction to take the next step has significantly harmed the present and the future of our field. A competitive treatment plan would allow the attraction of great investments and would improve the profile of the whole industry.

5) Limited collaboration
Unhindered collaboration between the different project agents is regarded as probably the biggest goal of modernization in construction. Despite the recent efforts of the UK government (BIM Level 2 Mandate), there still are many that have to be done before we can talk about a successful implementation of collaborative tools in our industry.

6) The industry’s profile
The construction industry doesn’t do it so well when it comes to building and maintaining an appealing profile. Unfortunately, that’s no secret or surprise for anybody. A push for the automatization of the field could change that. The advent of disruptive technology within our industry could result in the attraction of younger and more competitive workforce.

modernise or die - symptoms
Photo: UK Construction Symptoms by The Farmer Review Of The UK Construction Labour Model

The funding struggle

Finding the financial resources that could support the modernization of the construction sector is the main challenge both for the government and the industry experts. Nevertheless, according to David Whysall an out-of-the box approach is required if we want to come up with a functional solution.

On the one hand, Mark Farmer’s suggestion for charging extra (0.5%) every project that doesn’t comply with the effort of optimizing the construction process appears to be a risky choice. In the long run, it could have some serious effects on the whole sector such as cost inflation. On the other hand, there is an extremely low possibility of seeing the state absorbing some part of the damage by proceeding to generous investments on the sector.

Photo: David Whysall (Head of Cost and Commercial Management – Infrastructure, at Turner & Townsend) by Egi.co.uk

What’s left then? Based on Whysall’s analysis, there is another path to take. The elaboration and execution of high-scale programs which will offer the know-how for optimizing the construction industry as a whole. For this to happen a harmonious collaboration between the different parties (government, industry, clients) is more than necessary.

A great example of such an initiative is Crossrail. This spectacular and extremely demanding project changed the reality in underground construction and globally showed the way for further innovation. That’s the key to success according to David Whysall. Changing the industry from the inside thanks to large-scale projects which will eventually transform the industry.

Check Out Also: The Future Of Construction – BIM

 The Heathrow opportunity

As we saw above, pushing construction toward innovation and open collaboration is tough. Nonetheless, there are projects which could achieve that. David Whysall considers that the Heathrow expansion project which currently is in progress has a lot to offer. The timing is perfect, given the fact that the project is in a particularly profitable stage (supply chain design).

This means that if everybody play their cards right, we can witness a project of magnificent efficiency and productivity. The most crucial parameter, at this point, is the establishing of fruitful agreements with the best suppliers possible. In that manner, the project will manage to become an example for the future of construction globally. The spreading of the manufacturing activity all over UK also is one of the biggest ambitions for the Heathrow expansion.
The Heathrow Opportunity
What makes this project special in comparison to similar projects in the past, though? The answer comes again by Whysall and it makes great sense. First of all, it’s the pressure for immediate results. Especially for the UK, this project could be proved to be a “game-changer”. But it has to be done right! Every side that is part of this effort should share the burden of the potential challenges.
The Heathrow expansion is a unique opportunity for the industry to move forward. It also a great chance for the industry to prove to itself that is ready for the next step.

Additional actions

The expansion of Heathrow is of fundamental importance but it shouldn’t be the only point of focus. A number of additional, yet indispensable, actions are needed. It won’t be easy but it’s something that has to be done. Below we have gathered some extra solutions to today’s dead end:
Research and Development as a priority

We already mentioned above that one of the main issues of construction today is the lack of skilled workers. To surpass this obstacle, there’s absolute need for investing as much as possible in providing proper training to all the professionals of the field. Furthermore, we need to investigate new ways in which we could increase productivity and incorporating digital solutions on site.
Modernise or die - additional actions
Embrace new technologies

Construction is a traditional field and it will always be depended to certain extent on manual labor. This doesn’t mean, though, that there’s no room for new technologies to be introduced and become part of the project management process. The use of trustworthy construction software, for example, could provide great help in making the construction procedure more effective and in building stronger communication between all the different agents of a project.

Strong guidance
For deep changes to eventually work, efficient guidance always is necessary. In this case, the initiative should be taken from the state in close collaboration with the people working within the industry. The establishment of tempting incentives in order for the whole industry to become more open towards technological solutions would contribute to its immediate transformation. During this ground-breaking process, it’s imperative that the voice of the clients will also be heard.

Avoid political feasibilities
A huge challenge for the modernization of the construction industry is to design its plan of action far from political parties and short-term benefits. This may sound like a given but in today’s political world it’s not. The focus of this endeavor should be on putting together a brighter future for the industry and its clients. In simple words, the industry has to take care of itself instead of prioritizing the short-term “needs” of the parliament.

Stop ignoring the private sector
For the success of this groundbreaking effort the contribution of the private sector is necessary. This belief stems from the fact that private companies play an active role in 75% of the industry’s activity. It goes without saying, then, that the representatives of the private sector should join this big discussion and have a saying in the next day of the industry.

Successful combination of innovative and traditional techniques
The need for new practices and techniques doesn’t mean that everything traditional has to be eliminated. To the contrary, the ultimate goal should be to find a way in which we will be able to bring together the positive elements of the past and the innovative techniques of the future. By doing so, we will be in position to evolve the construction process and maximize productivity.

The reasons behind the problem

Last but not least, it’s crucial that we identify the causes behind this problematic situation. If we were trying to take a step back and look into them we could end up to the following observations:

No effort to change
Sticking to your habits can sometimes be very dangerous. This seems to have happened in construction where almost everyone appear to be stacked to the very same practices that go on and on for decades. Given this situation, it’s impossible for a new reality to emerge within the industry. On top of that, this perception that everything remains the same, no matter what, builds a bigger distance between what companies offer and what customers need/want.

Misinterpretation of the problem
The inability to fully understand the true nature of the problem might be the reason why there is no change. As Mark Farmer states, we deny to see the whole picture and we focus on smaller individual cases. Only when we shift our attention toward the general good of our sector, we will be able to see change.

Different points of interest for the industry and its customers
The construction industry seems to be trapped in conventional and dysfunctional structures and techniques which eventually deteriorate its connection with the clients. This lack of synchronization between the two sides in terms of vision could eventually lead to a pretty dark future for construction.

Problematic market environment
Mark Farmer also describes very well the problematic nature of the industry’s environment. More analytically, there is at the moment a severe lack of capital reserves which in conjunction with the high recurring cyclicality of demand in the industry has created a dysfunctional situation. To put it simply, there is no breathing space for the industry to take a step back and try to work its way up to a more efficient and collective future.


The whole industry seems to be in a dead-end at the moment. That’s why, it’s more than necessary for construction to open its gates to new technologies. The optimization of the construction project management procedure in combination with the adoption of an open-mind towards change will result in saving the industry’s future. In any other case, construction will start facing an even deeper crisis during the upcoming years.