We sat down with Brian Green, Analyst and Commentator for construction and housing to discuss the past, present and future of the industry. Brian has been working in the industry for over 30 years and within this interview, he shares his expertise and knowledge following our February content calendar theme: Economics within construction.
What have been the biggest challenges over the past 10 years in construction?
Looking back on the past 10 years, you are looking back to the influence of the financial crisis and what happened after that. The industry was doing pretty well up until that point, then took a hit. The difficulty with the construction sector is you can’t look at a single downturn and not notice a pattern.
Within the whole industry, you see the same problems constantly and they repeat themselves. When you have a downturn that results in losing a lot of people because a whole generation of people go. Once you pull out of that downturn you then realise you haven’t got anyone to work in the industry anymore, and that’s a constant problem because the industry is so fragile.
If you compare the construction industry to other industries, construction goes down more, this is because the industry is significantly more volatile than others. The entirety of the industry is based on confidence, you aren’t going to build until your confident. As that confidence grows the more people invest, then suddenly the confidence diminishes and the industry declines very quickly, because who wants to build into a recession?
You get much more exaggerated peaks and troughs in construction and that’s a general feature of the industry, which could be smoothed by government investment. We’ve had a slow start to government investment, the only sectors which were given support were housing and infrastructure, so what sectors are now doing well? Housing and infrastructure. What you’re seeing is that it is policy driven and from that point of view the fragility of the industry, as a whole is a given.
Housing has been pushed by Help to Buy and other things, since then housing suddenly took off, that creates a fragility as it is based on what policies the government put in place. In terms of infrastructure, there is always a need for infrastructure, construction is building for the long term so we must look to the long term.
Currently we are realising the world is changing. Digitalisation, demographic change and decarbonisation are the 3 factors which are majorly influencing what we build and how we build it.
The industry over the past 10 years has been trying to hold effectively to a system of building which is designed for the point were in, not the point we are going to be in – and that’s the problem. We must build looking to the future, the current rate of demolition means that it would take 1500 years to demolish just half of the houses in the UK, highlighting the time scale we are dealing with when dealing with a built product. The challenge over the last 10 years is that we’re stuck buildings things for the past, not the future.
Out of the challenges you’ve mentioned, what do you think is the biggest challenge?
Weaning yourself off those challenges would be the biggest challenge. Using Help to Buy for an example, if you wean off Help to Buy you would see a big hit to the housing market. Fortunately, house builders are currently doing very well as there is a strong demand for housing.
What challenges do you think the construction industry will face in the future?
The challenge which will be faced within the future is the transition. We are going through a period of transition now, one being Brexit and the other being a completely different economy and a different built environment. For example, people are now working from home, shopping online more and digitalisation is changing what we need.
Also decarbonising the economy will have profound effects. If you think that the term decarbonising energy just refers to decarbonising energy, you are mistaken. It’s about changing the way our homes work. Do we want our homes to have batteries in them? All those kinds of things are changing as a result of what we are building.
We now have a different population because of digitalisation. I believe the percent of home working will level out around 10% with most people doing hybrid working. This will result in changing where people live, because they don’t have to be within a commuting distance, so we don’t know how that is going to play out, we don’t know what effect that will have. We don’t know how any of the transitions we are currently going through will affect the future.
For the future of data, its brilliant! It’s a really interesting time for information and knowledge because so much is going to happen in the next 10 years and that’s the point, we just don’t know.
But what we do know it that is has the potential to be huge. These things are coming up rapidly, despite them being around 20/30 years ago, it’s not until you realise them. Climate change and demographic change, that’s something we knew was coming in the 1970s. But the markets and technology within the construction industry react late to these things, rather than anticipating them.