Industry Insights – April 2021: The Changing Landscape of Construction

By Jen Heil | May 4, 2021

Welcome, friends, to another edition of Smith Goodfellow’s Industry Insights. This month we’ve got a spotlight summary of the 2021 NBS Construction Leaders’ Summit — another great online event with industry experts from far and wide. We’re also taking a look at the recent call from industry leaders for a new National Retrofit Strategy after significant shortcomings were identified in the Future Buildings Standard, and highlighting the impact of the COVID pandemic on women’s careers in construction. 

Spotlight On The NBS Construction Leaders’ Conference 

This month we attended the Construction Leaders’ Summit 2021: Building for the Future. As with last year’s summit, industry experts were brought together to deliver the event online across two days jammed packed with presentations and panels. Many of us in attendance discussed how the online format made the event, like many other recent discussions and training materials, more accessible and easier to fit into busy schedules. It also enabled experts from anywhere in the world to join and share their valuable insight! 

The 2021 presentations focused around key areas such as progress in the digitalisation of the construction industry, regulatory changes, the climate crisis (with particular attention to how buildings are being designed and delivered to mitigate concerns), the Code for Construction Product Information (CCPI), The Golden Thread, and the pandemic’s impact over the last year. You can read snippets that were live tweeted over the two days by visiting the hashtag #CLS2021 on Twitter or watch the recordings here 

Overseeing the majority of the programme was Richard Waterhouse, who did a wonderful job fielding questions, keeping us entertained when there were technical issues, and generally just being a really energetic and passionate speaker in his own right.  

The event kicked off with The RT Hon Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP, UK Construction Minister, and Simon Rawlinson, Head of Strategic Research & Insight at Arcadis. They discussed the government initiative ‘Build Back Better’ as well as summing up some of The Green Book principles and Construction Playbook policies, with Anne calling for a bold new approach to change the way we plan, design and deliver the built environment.  

In addition to exploring the development and feedback for the Construction Playbook, presentations also included industry statistics from the last year. Glenigans discussed the strengths and weaknesses which were likely a result of the impact of Covid-19, whilst Christian Baker-Smith at Access Panels looked in particular at Access 360 and the digital landscape for training and product routes to market. He made the point that many businesses are driving the reach of their brand and products by focusing on digital marketing. We know from experience that this approach is more and more sought after and is a trend that is likely to continue. Many of the speakers highlighted the positives of the increase in remote working and the number of resources that have become available. These have sped up industry digitalisation, keeping people safe and allowing them to work effectively. 

Key take aways from the event centred around sustainability and wellness, with a clear acknowledgement that these are no longer nicetohaves but should be an essential part of new projects. Refurbishment of existing buildings was also highlighted as likely to continue being a big area for development, especially where offices are perhaps not used as much with businesses becoming more flexible in the face of the pandemic. Finally, when discussing the CCPI, Adam Turk raised some early feedback from the consultation that ended in March, noting that trade secrets and intellectual property seem to be big concerns with regards to product testing. It will be interesting to see how the industry chooses to address such concerns.  

There’s a point at which all these themes begin to converge. Effectively centring sustainability and wellness can be aided through the adoption of circular principles. Likewise, the refurbishment of existing building stock is a key element of circularity. And, in its broadest sense, the circular model demands a move away from proprietary towards collaborative approaches, necessitating transparency at its fullest. It’s interesting to see how all these discussions hover around the edges of the larger, central idea of circularity. It will be even more interesting to see how willing the industry is to embrace the opportunity for transformation at its heart.  

As we have come to expect from NBS events, we’ve been left with food for thought aplenty. The panel discussions, particularly those focusing on sustainability and environmental, offered some especially insightful conversations and we highly recommend catching up with what was said. Huge thanks to The NBS for hosting another brilliant summit and shout out to Richard, Gary, Taleen, Judit and Scott, who were highly knowledgeable and engaging, offering further points to explore. We look forward to seeing you all at #CLS2022! 

Exploring the need for a new National Retrofit Strategy 

Some of the UK’s leading built environment groups and green campaigners have joined forces, calling on the government to make its new energy regulation proposals ‘more ambitious’. In a letter sent to Jeremy Pocklington, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), 21 organisations — including The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), and the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) — have expressed their concerns over significant shortcomings in the Future Buildings Standard and laid out steps to make the proposed changes more effective. 

Signatories to the letter have warned that the current proposals fail to regulate the total energy consumption of buildings, make no provisions for regulating embodied carbon and do not set targets for actual energy performance. The letter sets out 6 key actions the government must take in order to address these issues and meet the UK’s Net Zero commitments: 

  • Start regulating total energy consumption, using operational energy as the key metric rather than primary energy  
  • Set actual energy performance targets for buildings rather than reduction in performance relative to a prescribed notional building  
  • Ensure new buildings are really on track for net zero carbon, with low energy demand and no fossil fuels  
  • Assess building performance better to close the performance gap  
  • Introduce and regulate embodied carbon targets for buildings 
  • Set a clear National Retrofit Strategy with adequate funding and a clear roadmap for action, including a whole building retrofit approach 

The forthcoming regulatory changes, whilst moving in the right direction, lack the necessary ambition and rigour needed to address the scale of the UK’s energy efficiency problems. The suggestions put forward in the letter to Pocklington offer an opportunity to further improve the proposed changes. An opportunity that must not be missed if we are to make the net zero vision a reality. 

You can read the letter in full here. 

COVID impacts on women’s careers in construction 

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people and industries all over the world and research has shown that the economic fallout is having a particularly adverse effect on gender equality. McKinsey have identified that women’s jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to this crisis than men’s jobs, with women making up 39% of global employment but accounting for 54% of overall job losses. They’ve also estimated that if no action is taken to counter these effects, global GDP growth could be $1 trillion lower in 2030 than it would be if women’s unemployment simply tracked that of men in each sector 

In the construction industry, efforts to improve the gender balance of the work force had started to gather momentum after years in which the proportion of women hovered stubbornly around 14%. But the additional burden of unpaid care placed disproportionately on women during the three UK lockdowns could now be reversing that progress. Women were also more likely to be placed on furlough, in part because they are over represented in administrative and support roles which were often the first to be stood down. 

In addition to the vulnerability of women’s jobs in the sector, the government’s extension to the deadline for gender pay gap reporting has given many firms a ‘comfort blanket’ that enables them to hide the comparisons. Only 13 out of 40 firms obliged to publish the data have actually done so. 

In order to mitigate these negative impacts and to protect and further gender equality in the industry, construction firms and leaders must look to their company practices, not just in terms of pay gap reporting or who is being placed on furlough or made redundant, but also at changed working practices. Flexible working and working from home arrangements often mean that women are having to work longer and harder around care responsibilities. Companies must ask themselves what they can be doing to support women faced with these additional burdens. Perhaps more importantly, we also need men in the industry – especially those in senior roles – to take on their fair share of flexible working practices and responsibilities for unpaid work. 

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