This month our Chief Economist Tom Hall spoke to construction consultant, commentator and all round expert Brian Green. Brian discussed the inspiration and background to the Recreative Construction series that he has written exclusively for Barbour ABI. The series looks at three major factors that will define the future of construction: climate change, digitisation and changing demographics.
Hi Brian, can you tell us a bit about this set of articles that you’ve written?
It’s important to start with context. In construction, periods of social, economic or environmental change have a massive impact on the way in which the built environment works. These shifts change where we work, where we live and what type of work that we undertake.
To pick an example, look at the Industrial Revolution where the population moved from villages into towns and cities. So, rather than building forges in a village, we then built a factory in a town, and that created urbanisation as we know it today.
If we fast forward to the period between the late 1970s and the end of the 20th Century, we see de-industrialisation and the expansion of the service economy, which drew young, educated people to offices or shops within cities. For construction this change had big implications, as the factories of the past were knocked down to be replaced by new offices and shops.
If we fast forward to today, arguably the three most pertinent forces at play that might influence the construction sector are: climate change, digitalisation and demographic changes. The shift to working from home for many in office roles means we are looking at a potential reversal of the trend towards city living of the past 40 or so years. These massive forces that are individually difficult to deal with are all coming together at once and are accelerated, in large part due to the pandemic.
Underlying these articles is an attempt to look back at the mistakes we’ve made throughout history in an attempt to avoid making these mistakes again.
It seems to me that it’s quite timely because there’s more market consensus than there’s ever been that we need to do something to improve infrastructure and a good built environment to improve people’s lives, would you agree?
Definitely. I think people are appreciating just how impactful the built environment is on their lives, now that they’ve spent so much time trapped at home in the past year! Previously, we may have thought about something as “just” an office or a house, now we see them as environments in which people live and socialise – even the office is seen as a place to socialise now. These changes in mindset are important and I think the public is more alert to these changes.
We need to have a clearer vision as an industry. We have the notion of Build Back Better, but we need to be careful about what “better” means before putting it into practice. It’s really important that we don’t make mistakes of the past again and have to pick up the tab later down the line.
One of the key themes from your pieces seems to be the need for more joined up and integrated thinking, in terms of how we go about thinking about what we need to build in the future and how that all looks and works together.
Definitely, we need to look at these three forces and how they work together rather than independently. We tend to over compartmentalise and say “this is a climate change problem, this is a demographic problem, this is a problem of digital economy”. We need to be able to look across the aisle and see local particular circumstances and look more holistically at these. If we fail to look holistically, we will end up making mistakes. We may solve the climate problem but create another problem, for instance. These are the dangers we’ve got to look to. But I think that if we’ve got a consensus of where we want to go and that is agreed upon, then that will help us to determine the future. And we can tweak that as we learn, of course.
To achieve that true consensus, diversity of opinion is vital. The demographic of construction is hardly representative, and that will lead to mistakes because we instinctively think from our own perspectives. We can empathise but it’s better to have somebody in the room who can explain from experience why you should or shouldn’t do certain things.
We also need diversity in the disciplines that we engage. As we get more sophisticated, buildings become much more about people, therefore we need to understand people better to make buildings better. If we build something that the occupant doesn’t use correctly, we have to understand why they aren’t using it correctly and think about what else we can build that they might use correctly instead.
If there was a takeaway point from your pieces, what would that be?
Given that we don’t live in optimistic times, I’d like to be optimistic and think that this represents a potential golden era of construction and it’d be lovely to think that we can do something that will put the industry in a good light. I think this is a golden opportunity, and one that the industry should really look to grasp.