Industry Insights – September 2020: A Foundation for Change

By Jen Heil | September 30, 2020

Welcome to September’s Industry Insights blog. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to dominate both general and industry news as its impact unfolds. This month, we’re looking at how it is shaping the priorities of our built environment, as well as how it has influenced practices, productivity and profit in the construction industry. We also look at the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of Manchester’s current development boom. 

Spotlight on Building Back Better: How the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the evolution of our built environment 

As well as creating countless new challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many existing issues and prompted a re-examination of priorities in practically every area of society. At the end of June, the Prime Minister announced a ‘New Deal’ for Britain, putting jobs and infrastructure at the heart of the government’s economic growth strategy. Delivered with a rallying cry to ‘build, build, build’, the plans placed the construction sector firmly at the centre of government promises to ‘build back better’. But what does this look like in practice and which priorities are paving the way for the future? 

Architect Norman Foster proposes that the pandemic hasn’t changed the sector’s priorities but has, instead, accelerated and magnified those that were already appearing. In recent years, sustainability, community, digitalisation and holistic approaches to health and wellbeing have steadily moved front and centre within industry discussions and decisions. As measures put in place to manage the pandemic restrict our movement and change the way we work and live, the importance of these considerations is thrown into even sharper relief. 

Now more than ever, we need solutions that address the combined needs of mental, physical and social health, and economic and environmental sustainability. Even in the earliest days of lockdown, industry leaders started to pose questions about what these solutions might look like and explore how the design of places could support the COVID-19 emergency and shape a post-crisis society 

The ensuing collaborative thinking has highlighted how increased commitment to the priorities mentioned above can address many of the challenges arising from the current situation. The ideas emerging aren’t anything radically new, but rather recognise the value of existing concepts – things like repurposing underused spaces, increasing and improving the use of data to match amenities with people who most need them, or greater adoption of urban farming to ensure fresh produce is locally available to everyone.Broader organising principles of urban development, such as the 15-minute city, are also garnering new interest, as enabling people to meet most or all of their needs within a short walk or bike ride from their homeis shifting from a ‘nice-to-have’ concept to a practical necessity.  

Throughout history, infectious disease has transformed our built environment, bringing existing issues to crisis point and prompting the industry to respond with solutions. Many trends we see today are derived from measures taken in the past to ensure the health, hygiene, and comfort of the population. In addition to clinical interventions, the design and planning of urban built environments has a vital role to play in the prevention and management of epidemics and pandemics. There is already some considered research examining how we can develop an anti-virus built environment and many interesting questions being posed around post-pandemic architecture. How we choose to answer these questions, use this research and ultimately respond to COVID-19 will significantly shape the future of both the industry and our environment. 

The changing landscape of industry practice, profit and productivity 

The current crisis is bringing grey clouds and silver linings a plenty to the construction industry, both in day to day operations on the ground and to the wider principles guiding the sector. 

Figures from the Office of National Statistics have shown that almost half of construction companies have seen their turnover drop over recent weeks and months, with more than one in ten operating at a loss. Of the companies surveyed, 24% have seen a decline in demand and 9% have declared they are at moderate risk of insolvency. The findings come amid significant job losses across the sector. Whilst these figures seem bleak, and there’s no doubt that the industry has taken a hit, the news isn’t all bad.  

Although the shutdown of manufacturing facilities, non-availability of raw materials, and impact on supply chain and logistics is still expected to restrain industry growth, there are also considerable opportunities arising from the challenges of this time. An increase in automation in public spaces, along with the rising awareness about antibacterial construction materials, is expected to boost the construction industry post COVID-19 pandemic.  

There has also been a notable increase in individual and team productivity, raising hopes that embedding some of the working practices born out of necessity during the pandemic could bring about long-term improvements in productivity and safety. Researchers at Loughborough University found that site measures introduced had led to better and more detailed task planning, reduced waiting time between tasks, increased space and therefore less “overlap” of trades. The boost in the use of technological solutions has also proven positive in streamlining processes. 

Whilst businesses try to balance this combination of challenge and opportunity, industry leaders are taking the chance to explore the bigger picture. The Construction Leadership Council released a Roadmap to Recovery back in June, which outlined thoughtful proposals for a sustainable recovery within the industry. The plan comprises 3 phases – Restart, Reset, Reinvent – to be carried out over 2 years, and centres sustainability and decarbonisation, meeting societal needs and modernisation to deliver better value. Launched just a month later, The Construction Innovation Hub’s Value Toolkit dives deeper into this idea of ‘value’ and what it really means in the industry, signalling the way for a much needed culture shift.  

Reflecting on the launch of the Roadmap and Toolkit, Programme Director Keith Waller was clear on the importance that we don’t lose sight of the bigger prize” – namely the opportunity to embed a lasting shift towards value-based decisions that drive better social, economic and environmental outcomes. The Toolkit outlines a broader definition of value that goes beyond financial metrics to consider social, economic and environmental factors across the full investment lifecycle. Through this wider understanding of value, it is hoped that the sector will abandon its historic affinity with cheapness and value engineering, and instead embrace a new model of true value-driven decision making.  

The Toolkit is intended to work alongside the Roadmap to Recovery in helping the industry make better decisions, faster, in order to deliver on the government’s ‘Project Speed’ ambitions for stimulating the economy. With support and buy-in from policy makers, clients and the industry at large, adopting this approach to post-pandemic recovery ensures that UK construction is actively supporting the path to Net Zero, boosting productivity, delivering safe, higher quality buildings, improving social impact, supporting regeneration and much more. 

There’s a long road and more challenges ahead but this is undeniably a moment in time that could redefine the core of the construction industry – an opportunity not to be missed. 


A look at the local development re-making Manchester 

Manchester has always been a city buzzing with activity and potential – a place with a proud heritage of innovation, creativity, diversity and ambition. That has never been more true than in recent years, and developers continue to flock to the north to be part of the surge of construction that is reshaping the city’s skyline. 

A historic planning committee meeting on 25th September gave the green light to over £1billion of projects in the city, including a £350million, 23,500 capacity arena in East Manchester and a £185m major high rise residential complex that will form part of the Northern Gateway. Two co-living schemes were also approved despite a sceptical – even hostile – response to co-living proposals from the city council earlier in the year.  

Whilst significant, ongoing projects such as Mayfield are changing the face of the city centre, just outside the city, in Manchester’s Old Trafford district, a £200million regeneration scheme has been approved. The 12-acre, former Kellogg’s site will be transformed with 750 homes, 200,000 sq ft of offices, a 100-bedroom hotel and primary school. Set to be called Lumina Village, the regeneration scheme forms part of Trafford Council’s wider Civic Quarter masterplan. 

It’s an exciting time for Manchester’s development, without a doubt, but how is this rapid growth and change impacting born-and-bred Mancunians? BBC documentary Manctopia asks just this question and explores the real-life experiences of those caught in the web of the billion-pound boom. Through the stories of individuals on both sides of the ‘haves and have-nots’ divide, Manctopia begins to examine the increasing gentrification of this beloved city, profiling the winners and losers in the ever-expanding game of redevelopment. Whilst the programme could go deeper in some aspects to explore the wider policies that have brought the city to this point, it does raise important questions about the little-covered negative impacts of ‘regeneration’. After all, a city is made of its people and we have to ask: what good is regeneration if it leaves those people behind or, worse, pushes them out entirely? 

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