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Construction Products Industry Roundtable 2021

by Barbour ABI Content Team

The Future Of The Construction Products Industry

On February 9th 2021, leaders from the construction products sector congregated on Zoom for an animated discussion on critical issues facing the industry.

Expertly chaired by Barbour ABI Strategic Consultant, Damon Schunmann, panelists represented a cross-section of leading sector organisations including:

Reviewing industry developments, panelists discussed the new construction product regulator, the industry’s digital transformation, and how best to go about improving product standards and procurement. The resulting debate was dynamic with lots of valuable insights and information.

We’ve summarised the most thought-provoking insights within each of the key themes below.

1. Does The Industry Need a Construction Product Regulator?
2. Coordinating Construction Product Standards
3. Improving the Interoperability of Construction Products
4. Improving Construction Product Testing – Across the Lifecycle
5. Digital Transformation: What does the Construction Product Industry need to do?
6. How Can The Construction Industry Improve Procurement Processes?
7. The Need For Greater Standardisation of Construction Components
8. The Road Ahead: Where Should the Industry Focus Over the Next 1-2 Years?

Does the industry need a construction product regulator?

Peter Caplehorn – Chief Executive – Construction Products Association (CPA):

“This is welcome. […]

But I don’t believe the industry has waited for this moment. In fact, conversations that the CPA have been having with MHCLG and other parts of government have been about how we can support the reforms and the recommendations that Judith Hackitt mentioned: how we can ensure that we start the wheels in motion. [ …]

As far as we’re concerned, that has been about firstly looking at responsibility, looking at information, and looking at how we can help and support the industry in producing those safe buildings that we all need.

So we’ve just launched a consultation on what we call the Product Information Code. This is a scheme across industry to provide proper information that is clear, transparent, reliable and trustworthy.

We hope when we launch in the autumn, that will be about every part of the industry signing up, whether they are a manufacturer or a supporter of the scheme.

We believe that we have everybody in the wider construction community and beyond, confidence that the information being provided is actually trustworthy.

In addition to that, we are trying to work on providing digital information on products. Again, that’s about providing a single version of the truth, providing clarity to everybody, particularly to others, such as Iain’s members or indeed Graham’s company, so that you can ensure that what you’re talking about is clearly the right product for the right situation.

That is one thread of reform. There are others to do with responsibility, to do with the duty holders, to do with sanctions, to do with general competence that we’ve seen coming through the raising of the bar; setting the bar report.

There are lots of different threads to this moving forward. And all of it is in support of the general governmental position of improving the whole sector and producing the key reforms that we need.”

Iain Mcilwee – Chief Executive – Finishes and Interiors Sector (FIS):

“Can I just jump on the back of what Peter just said, there, because I think he makes a really important point. We talk about the golden thread, but often we seem to be looking for the silver bullet and there isn’t a silver bullet in this.

Not one part of the industry can change. Construction is a complex process and every part needs to change. So I don’t believe there are any or many people in construction that are resistant to change.

It’s not like turning old tank around. This is a whole flotilla with oil tankers, speedboats and all sorts of things. We need to start moving together. And I think that’s the challenge. That it’s slow because we’ve got a flotilla to sort out, not just one oil tanker.”

Coordinating construction product standards – How can we coordinate standards and better align with what’s being built?

Iain Mcilwee – Chief Executive – Finishes and Interiors Sector (FIS):

“Part of the challenge with the testing environment is that we’ve tested things in isolation rather than looking at buildings or systems.

So it really comes down to looking – not just at the testing standards themselves – but how we apply a field of applications in wider building systems. And a big part of it is communication. The days of chucking a 50 page test report at somebody and then whacking it in a folder are well and truly over.

We need to look very clearly and very precisely at the field of applications for products that we’re using.

You can’t test everything in every configuration, in every size. It has to be assessments. There has to be fields of application use. But we’ve just got to be very careful about how we use them.” […}

Value engineering can’t be about value at any cost. Where we use terms like equal or approved or equivalent – we need to stop doing it. It’s equal and approved. It has to be approved through the supply chain so that ultimately the design is tested at every stage against any change to that design.”

How do we improve the interoperability of construction products?

Graeme Whitty – National Product Director – Willmott Dixon Construction:

“It’s having that rounded picture. You need to understand how the products are going to go together as a system. And that can only happen when you have the information early on in the design process.

Making value engineering decisions as you’re building a building is the wrong time to do that – you’ve missed the boat. It just makes life incredibly hard for the guys on-site with other pressures on them, looking at this very detailed level of compliance, compatibility and performance.

Those decisions should be made and set in stone.

That’s what I like about the gateway system being proposed under the building safety regulations by the government. It means you set out your stall of how you’re going to comply with various elements of regulation at the start and then you track it all the way through to the end.”

Peter Caplehorn – Chief Executive – Construction Products Association (CPA):

“The other element to this […] is that it’s fine having the right testing, it’s fine having the right information.

You also need competence within everybody reviewing all of that – putting things together and checking things on-site – all the way through this. The designers right the way through to the maintainers. There needs to be a level of competence that actually understands what they’re looking at and understands the implications.

So often in today’s industry, we have competence, but it tends to be very siloed, And quite often we have a situation where that is the weak link in the chain.

It’s misinterpretation of things in front of people or actually not understanding the implications of what they’re getting into. And so often that is the Achilles heel. And that definitely needs to be plugged. I know we’re working on that, but it’s nonetheless a crucial element to the whole of this topic

Iain Mcilwee – Chief Executive – Finishes and Interiors Sector (FIS):

And that can’t just be one overloaded boffin right? That’s the way it usually is. One overloaded boffin in the back end of the business,

It needs to be the marketing people because they know what they’re selling. It needs to be the sales people. It needs to be the procurement people who understand that if they buy the wrong bit, they’re going to break the product further down the line.

It has to be competency in the round. And I think we’ve got far greater understanding of that now.”

Bill Hewlett – Technical Director – British Board of Agrement (BBA):

“Yes, a few points from what I’ve learnt at BBA is that there is a critical point in our process is to determine what is tested. And make sure that that picks up all these points about interoperability and so on – how the element fits within the whole and how it functions.

That’s not necessarily straightforward to determine. It’s quite an expert thing to do. But it’s expert not in a sort of purely analytical way. it’s expert in a kind of feel for what’s going on.

I really like Peter’s comment about materials being the DNA of the industry. But to add to that – implementation, how is something put into practice? What are the schemes that we have that support that?

Again, that’s an area that BBA contributes to. And I think everybody does and should think about that robustness and sensitivity.

It’s all very well having something that works in perfect conditions. But I spent most of my life working on a construction site and conditions are not always perfect. There’s snow on the ground today, which could well be falling out of the sky as you’re trying to build. And the maintenance regime. How does that happen and what are the small things that go wrong?

Water ingress is the kind of ‘bête noir’ in terms of degradation of buildings. A lot of folks have BBAs in that area, and I’m sure a lot of people on this call can speak to that agenda as well.

So how do we maintain it throughout a 30, 50, 60 year life or more?”

How do we improve construction product testing across the lifecycle?

Bill Hewlett – Technical Director – British Board of Agrement (BBA):

“This is a really important point – there has been a kind of tradition, if you like, of test once, and assume it’s good forever.

You have tests that are 10 years or more old. The regime should be changed on that. Dame Judith was clear on that. The building safety bill is also clear on that – at least the draft has been. And obviously, if a product changes, it needs to be retested. There’s no merit in a test, for one thing, if you’ve got something else.

But in the course of time, there will be progressive change. And where you get interaction between components in some way, there’s a sort of subtlety of how they work together – any slight modification or variation over time, calls for retesting.

So I would say we need both legislation on the one hand, but an appeal to good practice on another to maintain testing regimes and come back to things on probably a three year basis – something of that type – as a routine, and then obviously, if there’s good reason to do testing in addition to that, then that should be done.”

Peter Caplehorn – Chief Executive – Construction Products Association (CPA):

“I believe the new regulator and Office of Product Safety are still mapping out exactly how they will operate. And in fact, we’ve got ongoing conversations with them right now.

But I think one of the key things is to pick up that point about ongoing safety for products, particularly when they come down to life safety issues.

I’m an advocate of both the new regulatory regime and the product regulations to not just limit this to structure and fire as some of the regulations point to, although I’m always told that the door is open to consider wider things. But I don’t see where the dividing line is between a product that affects fire safety and all the other products that interact. I think it’s a very complicated thing to just say I’m only going to record fire and structure information or I’m only going to focus on that because you’re going to miss something else. I’m sure.

Buildings are holistic and Dame Judith’s report made that point very well. So I think it’s right. We’ve got to start somewhere. We can’t boil the ocean, as many people say, we can’t take on everything. But this is an ongoing process to reform the whole industry. And I would say everything in it, all the people, all the products, all the designs. In fact, you know, a good analysis of how we actually do stuff right now, I think needs to come under some real focus because I’m sure we can do things better.”

Iain Mcilwee – Chief Executive – Finishes and Interiors Sector (FIS):

“But to make a quick point. I think we have to be careful that we don’t think the world is black and white.

Yes, we could benefit from greater consistency between certification schemes. Yes, there’s definitely ways it could be improved. But ultimately, there are systems that construction has used that we can rely on. And I don’t want to see those being chucked out to create something new because we think nothing works. And we’ve built a lot of buildings that are safe but we just didn’t do that consistently as needed to happen.”

Digital transformation: what does the construction product industry need to do?

Peter Caplehorn – Chief Executive – Construction Products Association (CPA):

“We’ve got a lot of the industry that has taken up significant advances in digitalisation. There’s also an awful lot of the industry that is quite a long way away from it. But we’ve got a lot of things going on.

We have a project called Lexicon, which is about bringing common data, common arrangements of data, common terms.

We’ve also got another project about a digital indicator, which will make sure we’ve got one version of the truth with products.

The Construction Innovation Hub is starting to push out some really good information about the UK BIM framework, which takes over from the old Level 2 – Level 3 discussion. And we do lead the world in the BIM standards, the 19650 suite of standards in terms of providing that core information. So there’s an awful lot going on in that direction.

But there’s an awful lot more to do. And I think people are discovering new approaches, new ways of bringing in innovation in that space all the time. But I don’t think it will be ‘one day we’re going to see the job done’, because I think it will continue to advance as technology advances.”

Peter Caplehorn – Chief Executive – Construction Products Association (CPA):

“We do have a system that we’re working with British Standards on to give products unique identifiers, and they will be persistently stored on a client website. So I think that is coming.

Existing parts are a challenge, and existing part systems can be integrated. Because the wonderful thing about digital platforms is that we can create software which matches old systems to new systems.”

Iain Mcilwee – Chief Executive – Finishes and Interiors Sector (FIS):

“Just coming off the back of that, building new buildings is a lot easier than refurbishing old buildings. If you look at Grenfell, the issues were not around the new building coming out the ground, it was around refurbishing an existing building, which is going to be built with existing faults. So that’s a big change.

The big thing about technology is technology is not going to solve our problems: we’re going to solve our problems with technology. And there’s a subtle difference in that.

Part of my challenge around the digitisation of construction is there is a huge amount happening. I mean, one of the amazing figures to me last year is we had a bit more of a concerted attempt to help our members get R&D tax credits. In 12 months, £5 million went back to the industry that was unclaimed or invisible […]

There’s a huge amount of digital stuff going on. I think sometimes my challenge is we hog the headlines with the technology, not with the problem.

The problem is the golden thread right. Now that’s the key thing. BIM is a fantastic tool in the box that we can use to solve this issue around better communication between different parts of the supply chain. My fear is people are trying to own it, and the answer is, you’ve got to open-source this stuff for it to work.”

Bill Hewlett – Technical Director – British Board of Agrement (BBA):

“The question of innovation and change – particularly in some industry, which is so co-evolved as construction is and so complex – is how do you get out of the valley you’re in and into this new place with new technologies?

Interoperability and common platforms have got to be part of that. But I think experimentation and people trying things and trying things in part. If they work well, then others will adopt them and you’ll see a change gradually moving across the industry.

One of the areas that should be looked into is how we trace materials through manufacture, through sourcing, manufacture, the logistics chain into the position. Lots of technologies can be used then – smart labelling, RFIDs, the surface finish that is used or manufactured characteristics.

There are lots of ideas. We need to see people experimenting with them. Then I think we’ll see a gradual change in how the industry works.”

“..clearly a testing certificate applies to the product to which it applies, not to some other products if there is a change or substitution that would need to be known about.

Interoperability standards have to be key, and open data supported by cloud storage. Blockchain is something we should have a talk about. And of course, BIM and how BIM works and what it really means in the early days of building information modeling or building information management – it’s evolved into various forms.

But I think there we can see considerable movement in the industry quite quickly – because most people are now working with objects in design, certainly far more than they were.

But to take Iain’s point, new build is an easier one to deal with than refurb. Maybe we need some sample projects, get them off the ground and see how we can make it work in a controlled environment.

The need for greater standardisation of construction components

Graeme Whitty – National Product Director – Willmott Dixon Construction:

“Every construction project that we carry out is bespoke because of its nature. It’s somewhere else different in the country.

We never build the same thing exactly twice. But where we can standardise our offerings, […] we believe that that’s the way forward – not just our business, but our industry as well. […]

By having a pre-designed solution that uses known products with their individual characteristics and performance standards and abilities in a known configuration, i.e. we’re installing them exactly as the manufacturer intended them to be used. We generate more confidence about the products that we can deliver to the marketplace.

Because obviously we’ve built a building; it’s not just out for a couple of years – it’s 30, 60 year design life and these buildings have to have to stand up to that use. […]

I can see us going down a less fragmented route as an industry. More collaborations, more joining up with different manufacturers, partnering collaboration. These platforms will emerge and we’ll have probably fewer platforms, fewer systems to option. But they can create, obviously, the wide range of built environment that we need, with simple building blocks that go together in known ways.

We need to be more efficient as an industry as well. All of our carbon issues and future home standards […] as well as the products that we use. They need to be looked at holistically. And doing that on every project individually: we can’t sustain that as a business.

We’ve got a skills gap, a knowledge gap in the industry as well, which isn’t helping. So we need to reduce the amount of work we do on every project, standardise what we do, and build better confidence in the few platforms we deliver.”

How can the construction industry improve procurement processes?

Graeme Whitty – National Product Director – Willmott Dixon Construction:

“Yes, it starts with procurement and as you said before, lots of elements to the industry need to change and procurement is huge.

We need a coordinated approach to procurement, so single-stage tendering on the basis of very basic information on a D&B basis is a recipe for disaster. How can you ever get the best value building out of that approach? It’s short sighted, it’s short-term – you’re just inviting bad practice and people to cut corners or do things because they need to win a job. And need to make assumptions and guesswork that don’t pan out. And then you’re on low margins. So what are you going to do? It’s a very difficult place.

With the bodies that I sit on, we’re sitting there talking to government and instilling in their procurement practices. They need to start thinking about how they procure more collaboratively. Working towards what is best value for these projects, not just lowest cost. Hopefully the playbook supports that. It does stop a bit short from where we would like it to go.

But we want to build partnerships. I want to work with fewer, customers, but do better work for them. So I’m not tendering every job to the lowest rung on the ladder: it’s not the right way to do things.

We do need to be more connected and demonstrate best value. We need to be held to account. We need to provide better value and we can do that. But you can’t do that when you’re solely based on price. That’s not what this is about.”

Bill Hewlett – Technical Director – British Board of Agrement (BBA):

“The playbook shines a light from the right direction – its big mantra is better, faster, greener, and I think that’s got to be absolutely right. But what I think needs a lot more subtlety of understanding is the science of procurement and supply chain management.

Many of us have been involved in some great procurement, many of us in some less good ones. But what is needed is a proper science of understanding of what the range of styles of procurement is and how it can work.

One of the key things about construction, it’s not like building cars, each one of which is pretty similar to the next, if not identical. But the customer penetration point, as it’s called, is different. And I think if you understand it in the right way, then these platforms make a lot of sense.

Standardised products, which are adaptable make a lot of sense, and we can start to get towards digital objects, properly aligned supply chains, investment in lean and optimised design and innovation, and, of course, testing regimes that go with that. So I think there’s a lot of hope, but we’ve got to understand it in the right way.”

The road Ahead: Where should the industry focus over the next 1-2 years?

Peter Caplehorn – Chief Executive – Construction Products Association (CPA):

“I think the low-hanging fruit is around the element we were just talking about. There’s a lot of experience, a lot of expertise, bringing the industry together on a common theme. And I think at the moment, we have an alignment of really fortuitous points. So we have the need to get buildings safer, responding to Dame Judith Hackitt’s requirements. We have a need to make sure we address the zero carbon targets. And we have a need to make sure that the industry ups its game.

So to me, all of those things are coming together. And what I would just put a plug in for as well, during the pandemic, the CLC has had a bit of a revolution in terms of its appropriateness and action across the industry. And I think the CLC has done a lot to make sure that a lot of those themes are actually now in train and working across the whole industry.”

Bill Hewlett – Technical Director – British Board of Agrement (BBA):

“The three things I’d be looking at here particularly:

The whole digital agenda and getting that lined up. Even if that doesn’t give us an immediate outcome win in that period, it’s work we need to do so that we can take the industry forward in a meaningful way for future.

So the standards of interoperability, digitisation, AI, experimentation perhaps in some areas, but let’s get a platform that works for us there.

And then we’ve got the idea of platform design. I think it depends a little bit what sort of project we’re talking about. And if we’re talking about schools, apartments, hospitals, buildings – where they’re not identical by any means, but there is a set of components that we could we can use and develop, and they could be quite complex components – let’s work on that and the certification process of those testing process. Those need to be clearly developed and used.

And the last point is, I think we should harness the passion of the industry. One or two members of this profession sit around in big yachts, but not very many of us. Most of us do it because we love it and we care about it. And I think Graeme’s story about his doors was absolutely playing to that agenda. We should do more of that.”

Iain Mcilwee – Chief Executive – Finishes and Interiors Sector (FIS):

“I think what it is, it’s about being a little bit nicer to each other. Showing each other a little bit more respect.

I’m thinking back to a recent CPA meeting where Adam Turk described it. We design in calm, we procure in chaos. And we set ourselves up for adversarial relationships throughout that.

So I think we’ve got to fundamentally look at the way we procure and not just incentivise digital sustainability, net deal – all of these things. Let’s incentivise better relationships. Let’s incentivise earlier engagement so we can use the expertise, the supply chain.

From the product side, we’ve got to meet people halfway. So it’s about clarity of communication. It’s about priorities. It’s about integrity in our marketing to ensure that people know when to use our products and when not to. And I think if you if you do that, then the work the CPA on marketing integrity is superb.

You combine that with the Building Safety Charter. You’ve got the CPIC coming through, you’ve got the Building Safety Charter – all of these things are stacking up. If you haven’t signed the Building Safety Charter and you’re in construction, get on it. Do it now. And start reading up about the CPIC, because there’s the two ends – that’s how we’re going to meet in the middle.”

Graeme Whitty – National Product Director – Willmott Dixon Construction:

”My points are: more collaboration, more engagement with each other and more commitment to each other, to build those relationships. You can do that tomorrow with your supply chain and the various parties within it.

Stop reinventing the wheel. I know we’re an innovation-based industry as well, but sometimes we do just need to stop changing things for sake of change and understand what we’re doing.

And, you know, history does tell us some good – so do what you can do with that.

And basically joined-up design and procurement, so that what we originally envisage on a piece of paper actually makes out into the field and on the building. That will solve a lot of problems.

And that goes back to commitment. I put it on a drawing, I’m going to go and buy it. I’m not going to go back out to the market – equal or approve lowest tender wins. That’s not what you’re about.”

About the author

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Barbour ABI Content Team

The Barbour ABI content team is a part of the Marketing department and they strive to produce engaging, relevant content to keep you up to date with the latest construction industry insight.

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