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Engineering the future

B4E talks to the Chartered Association of Building Engineers CEO Dr John Hooper about the issues facing the building trade today

Posted by Dave Higgitt | February 16, 2014 | Facilities management

Dr John Hooper began his career in the 1960s, studying for a BSc in electrical and electronic engineering. Following that he worked as a project engineer for United Glass Ltd, then a senior project engineer for Cadbury Schweppes plc in the Caribbean and Nigeria, before becoming deputy chief executive for Glaxo Pharmaceuticals (now Glaxo Smith Kline). In 1985, however, he decided to work in the not-for-profit sector and since then has worked for, amongst others, the Chartered Institute of Building, The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents and The Institute of Clinical Research. He is currently the chief executive of the Chartered Association of Building Engineers. As well as his BSc, John has an MSc in chemical engineering and a PhD in energy management. He is a chartered director, fellow of the Institute of Directors, and a fellow of the Chartered Management Institute.

What is the role of the Chartered Association of Building Engineers?

Established in 1925, the Chartered Association of Building Engineers is a leading body for professionals specialising in the design, construction, evaluation and maintenance of building construction. Our mission can be described as “raising standards, sharing knowledge and developing professionals”. We have promoted excellence through education, training and regulation of membership standards for over 88 years. We have been consistently practising as a professional body working with members in both the private and public sectors. Over the years the environment in which we operate has dramatically changed, likewise technology and specialist skills have been developed to meet those changes.

How important is the association’s Royal Charter?

The award of the Royal Charter, which is comparatively rare, acknowledges the association’s continuing demand for excellence from its members to satisfy the public need for, and maintenance of, a holistically safe, functional, aesthetic, responsible and sustainable built environment, and is reserved for eminent professional bodies which have a solid record of achievement and are financially sound. It is recognition of “pre-eminence, stability and permanence” and is in the public interest. The charter will help us to take even more of a leading role in the industry response to the challenges facing the built environment sector, by us offering education and training to optimise future opportunities.

Define the role of the building engineer and explain how you think it is changing

Building engineers provide professional services and advice in relation to everything from the design and preparations of plans to legislative compliance, building surveys, energy auditing and assessment, the rehabilitation of properties and conservation … The role is changing due to the introduction of new technology, changes to construction methods and practices, increased competition, greater integration of the supply chain and the need to address the UK’s ageing demographic and potential future shortage of professionals working in the built environment.

Building information modelling has the potential to change the way the professionals work together in designing buildings, creating a need for professionals with a wide range of skills.

Off-site construction will increasingly replace the traditional methods; the focus on energy saving, the move to zero carbon buildings, keeping abreast of new and emerging technologies and the changes in thinking about the link between buildings and the wellbeing of those who occupy them are all fundamental issues which need to be addressed by building engineers.

Housing supply has not kept up with demand for several years and there are about 1.9million households on housing registers in England. The need to increase the supply of housing and tackle affordability issues is a key housing policy issue.

In 2007 the government set a target of increasing the supply of houses to 240,000 additional homes each year by 2016. Within this target was a commitment to deliver at least 70,000 affordable houses each year by 2010/11 of which 45,000 were to be social rented homes. This was unlikely to meet the demand, but the 2007/8 credit crunch ensured the target wouldn’t be achieved despite the rising demand, and with the collapsed mortgage advances, private builders reduced the supply of new housing and the falling house prices in the recession haven’t solved the problem of affordability as they have been accompanied by tighter lending criteria.

Our members need to ensure a sustainable future through discussion and debate about emerging concepts, rather than determining a particular single path towards achieving a sustainable built environment.

We need to ensure that knowledge transfer, from the old to the young, plays a more active role in shaping policy affecting the sector and successfully tackle the challenges of existing infrastructure and buildings. Smart technology can not only change the way we use the built environment, but also how its occupants interact with it.

The future needs investment in innovation and technology, alongside increased collaboration between business and research institutions, to enable the UK to realise the potential of the opportunities to benefit by the global shift to a low-carbon economy and green construction. By improving the construction process a reduction of up to 30 percent of the life cycle costs, 50 percent of the delivery time and 50 percent of work-related accidents could probably be achieved and the UK could be Europe’s leader in creating a sustainable built environment with policies such as zero waste and an efficient use of all resources, whole of life design, construction, maintenance and operation. Changes will be, of necessity, evolutionary, incremental and gradual but essential.

Building engineers have a significant part to play in the future and as we emerge from recession now is the time to make the changes.

Do you anticipate skills shortages in the construction sector? If so, how can CABE make a difference?

There is a growing challenge in attracting young people into traditional built environment professions, such as engineering as salaries are comparatively low when compared to other sectors, particularly when considering the levels of responsibility of the roles.

Global and domestic opportunities in construction mean that a skilled and flexible workforce will be vital to the UK construction sectors future performance and competiveness. Evidence on qualifications is positive, showing increasing proportions of individuals with higher level qualifications. About one fifth of all vacancies in the wider construction sector are hard to fill because employers cannot recruit staff with the right skills, qualifications or experience.

Professional bodies, such as the Chartered Association of Building Engineers, have to put more effort into promoting the sector to youngsters, to encourage them to pursue a career in the sector. It is an exciting sector and building engineering offers a rewarding career in a rapidly changing and challenging environment.

What pressures is demand for ‘greener’ building construction putting on the sector?

Globalisation, demographic changes, demand for green and sustainable construction, carbon reduction commitments, climate change levy, corporate social responsibility, resource scarcity, increasing population and Green Deal are all potential environmental pressures and opportunities for the sector.

What is needed to ensure a sustainable future is discussion and debate about emerging concepts, rather than determining a particular single path towards achieving a sustainable built environment.

Globally about 40 percent of all energy and material resources are used to build and operate buildings, about 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings construction and operation and 40 percent of total waste results from construction and demolition activities.

The definition of a sustainable built environment is changing rapidly. Whilst aiming for neutral or reduced environmental impacts in terms of energy, carbon, waste or water are worthwhile targets, it is becoming clear that the built environment must go beyond this. It must have a net positive environmental benefit for the world.

The development of a sustainable built environment will largely rely on retro-fitting existing infrastructure and buildings, rather than new build. 70 percent of current building stock will exist in 2030 and construction project management will over time, change through the technology of building information modelling.

What are your views on off-site manufacture?

If there is to be a significant and sustained increase in the rate of build of new homes to levels above 140,000 a year, it is entirely likely that this will need to be enabled at least in part by a substantial increase in the use of off-site and industrialised construction methods.

In terms of performance levels, off-site forms of construction have substantial advantages over traditional forms of construction, particularly in terms of speed of build on site, quality of build and in terms of ownership, sustainability, health and safety and waste reduction. The problem at present is that off-site is currently more expensive than traditional forms of construction. When the economy improves further and the demand for houses is greater then volume, house-builders may become more interested, but quality and faster build times are of no interest with current demand if the cost is higher.

Faster rates of build may appeal to social landlords who wish to provide homes for tenants quickly to meet housing needs, to developers of market rent dwellings able to generate income sooner and also self-builders.

Home builders generally do not see any commercial advantage in constructing homes to a level of performance above the basic requirements of building regulations as they have little interest in the performance of new homes beyond the provisions of the normal structural warranties.

The latest revision to part L of the building regulations in England comes into effect on 6 April and will raise the requirements for the thermal performance of new homes as a requirement of the government’s sustainability strategy and it will become more difficult and expensive for house builders to achieve the build quality necessary to deliver the prescribed performance levels through traditional forms of construction. This will only become more challenging as we move towards the 2016 target for zero-carbon homes. This is probably when off-site solutions start to become increasingly relevant.

Is the school building programme working and should spending increase?

The recession resulted in a significant downturn in the construction sector and reduced government spending across all areas of building, including schools, so it is not surprising they are trying to make school buildings last longer and are focusing on those with the most urgent need of repair. In many instances it is a bit like moving the deckchairs on the Titanic and the inevitable long-term outcome will be much higher costs than if some buildings were demolished and rebuilt to new building standards now.

The partnership between the public sector and the private sector to deliver under PFL conceived at the end of 2012 should benefit with additional efficiency, skills and expertise. Some previous initiatives such as the Private Finance Initiative were not successful, mainly due to a lack of transparency. The capital spends available for some schools are limited and less than 50 percent of the schools who applied were successful.

It also appears that there are issues with specifications for schools, one typical example relates to the use of UPVC windows in conservation areas as not being allowed, even though this may improve the energy efficiency of the building. As there are windows on the market which look similar to those in conservations areas, there could be more relaxation on policy providing they look right, provide the comfort and heat saving and can be cost effective.

Talking to colleagues involved in school refurbishment it is obvious that many school buildings are inadequate and are being ‘temporarily’ repaired. But we all know what state the country (world!) is in, and spending cuts are regrettably essential and I recall the response when Michael Gove cancelled Labour’s school building programme but others also suffered including housing. Cutting £1billion from the schools budget has to have a detrimental effect, but as the economy starts to improve, it is hoped that additional money will be given to school buildings assisting the education of the next generation. Regrettably the management of some of the schools programme was not great and there has been a lot of criticism in relation to overspend, delays and bureaucracy. Not surprising really if you look at IT fiascos managed by the government. Regardless of the party, we all know that government can’t manage budgets effectively and therefore working with the private sector is essential to rebuild our school infrastructure, but it has to be made sufficiently attractive to the private sector to invest to the level needed to rebuild our schools for the future and cease educating the next generation in schools designed and constructed several generations ago.

Of course spending, ensuring value for money should be increased as soon as government can afford it.

How important is building information modelling (BIM)?

The built environment sector is getting excited about BIM. It will probably be at least 10 years before it is used on all projects, but it is now increasingly being used on large projects, with professionals from the different disciplines working together to deliver a great project in a shorter time, with less waste and abortive work and reduced costs. So all professionals across the delivery chain, including developers, designers and engineers will be working on BIM in the future.

The government has said that fully collaborative 3D BIM must be implemented on all public sector projects by 2016. It is unlikely to happen, except on very large projects in that timeframe. Although BIM stands for building information modelling, some refer to it as building information management or better information management. It requires an initial relatively expensive investment in a software package and a change to processes. At present there are choices of packages available but probably like the old VHS/Betamax issue, one will probably become the package of choice, hence many companies are waiting to see how this pans out. What we are clear about is the culture change necessary to work with BIM is a more open and efficient sharing of information across the delivery chain.

By delivery partners working effectively as a team, through more accurate, easier, information sharing, the whole process from design to handover will become more efficient, saving time, money and emissions.

The problem with the software alternatives is that there is an accepted shared file format, which means that the collaborative working that is so essential to the BIM philosophy can only be achieved if the delivery partners have the same or compatible BIM software, or are at least able to share a software licence for the duration of the project.

The marketplace needs to be educated about BIM’s requirements and benefits and we will have to address the questions surrounding a ‘one team approach’ involving multiple companies. The Construction Industry Council has established 11 BIM regional hubs in partnership with the government’s BIM task group. They intend to encourage the sharing of knowledge and best practice.

BIM is the future and an increasing number of universities are including it in a meaningful way on their courses. Students of today, the professionals of tomorrow will work significantly differently than we do today and the Chartered Association of Building Engineers is doing all it can for students and other professionals to prepare them. They will find that virtual design and construction allows project teams to build a structure twice, once virtually and once physically, providing savings in cost and schedule accompanied by enhanced project quality, improved project safety and buildings which are easier to operate and maintain.

What are the main changes you expect to see in the construction sector over the next decade?

There is a constant change in the area of energy conservation/consumption. Systems that recover heat energy through heat wheels, the use of occupancy sensors are increasingly installed in buildings. Systems are becoming smarter and can recognise carbon dioxide levels and environmental conditions in a room and the sensor changes the ventilation and the energy needed accordingly. Buildings will become increasingly green and smart as environmentally sustainable features are increasingly asked for.

The trend over the past few years of reduced construction output should now continue to reverse. There is an indication that some large projects, previously parked, are now going to move forward, with contract awards growing significantly compared to 2012.

Construction companies need to be efficient and consumer focused to stay ahead of the competition and also seriously consider expanding into the rapidly emerging economies of Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe.

As the population grows there will be an increasing need for development of existing/new cities.

There is a need for a broader, more efficient infrastructure and there will be diversification within the energy landscape. New technologies will change the efficiency of buildings and infrastructure.

There will be an increased use of off-site construction to save time and improve build quality and the performance of the building and this will require new skills and a significant change from traditional construction methods and materials.

I expect an increased level of monitoring of buildings in use to allow for predictive and corrective maintenance as well as an increased demand for good energy, water and waste management to be included in the design and operation of buildings.



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