What will the Future of Construction Be Like?

Looking Backwards to Look Forward

History is something that must usually be experienced backwards. We have a sense of ‘now’, but we can’t tell ourselves a story of where we came from or where we are going without studying the past. This is as true in the construction industry as anywhere else, and Samsung has released a very interesting report outlining where they think the construction industry might be going in the next century.

It looks at the astounding advances in building techniques and materials humanity has managed over the last 100 years, and tries to imagine where this accelerating curve will take us in the next. Is it speculation? Of course. But it is well-researched, and counts as at least an ‘educated guess’ about what the next few generations will be building.

Housing in the Future

Samsung believes that architecture will have to move away from the single-use buildings we see today. For continued growth of our cities to remain anything like sustainable, the building themselves must become two things: enduring and flexible.

Enduring: Simply put, we can’t keep up with the pace (or the expense in time and resources) of putting up buildings just to knock them down again in 10 or 20 years if we are going to have cities two or three times the size of those today. We have to develop techniques and materials which will endure, perhaps for centuries. They need to last as long as the castles of old yet be as large, open and functional as today’s architecture. The ability for these structures to self-repair will be a large part of that.

Flexible: Because those buildings will stay up, we need to be able to change what they are inside easily to suit new uses and owners every few years. ‘Smart’ interior walls which can rearrange themselves and even extrude seats, tables and equipment will, Samsung says, be necessary.

Building Tomorrow’s Amusements

In addition to needing vast amounts of space to live and work, the next century’s exploding population will need places to play. If the amount of leisure time the average person enjoys continues to increase at the pace of the last century, leisure may eclipse work in terms of its importance, and the size of its infrastructure.

Samsung suggests that the future of entertainment will be virtual reality. (Of course, this surely has nothing to do with advertising the Samsung Gear VR devices that they have invested so heavily in of late. Saying so would sound terribly cynical.) If so, then building leisure facilities in the future may be much more technical than architectural, with the end result looking more like the holodeck from Star Trek than the gleaming parks-inside-domes of Logan’s Run.

We shall see. Historically, predictions about how we will spend our leisure time have never been accurate. Who would have predicted social media (besides Orson Scott Card)

Bricklaying on Mars

Samsung firmly believes that people will be living and working in space long term by the end of the next century. Asteroid mining for resources and using those minerals and organic compounds to build space stations, sealed habitats on airless or poison moons and even terraforming larger worlds like Mars may be possible in that time. Of course, they said that in the 50s.

No matter exactly how these large scale off-Earth habitats finally look like, it won’t be astronauts building them. If this becomes a reality, specialist builders will be needed. After all, it took tens of thousands of independent contractors to build the Death Star.

There is no word yet as to whether you’ll need an NVQ level 2 or 3 to qualify as a Zero-G Vacuum Welder, but we’ll keep you posted.

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The Dark Truth about Blacklisting in Construction

Blacklisting is alive and well in the UK’s construction industry, as Dave Smith and a number of other workers just proved in court.

In Brief

Several of the UK’s largest construction companies have been ordered to pay nearly £6 million in compensation to 71 different carpenters and bricklayers for denying them employment due to their presence on a ‘black list’, an illegal practice.

Just what happened?

These 71 workers (as well as many others not party to this particular case) had been branded as ‘trouble makers’ or ‘undesirable’ for other impermissible reasons on an unofficial (and in fact illegal) black list which was shared by more than 40 of the largest construction organisations in the UK, including Vinci, Skanska UK, Kier, Costain, Carillion, Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd and Balfour Beatty.

One could be blacklisted for properly raising HSE concerns, whistle blowing, or even simply being active in a trade union. The black list itself was maintained and shared by ‘The Consulting organisation’, which was shut down when the scandal first broke some seven years ago. More than 3000 names were on the list at that time, and there may well have been other black lists even then.

What can being blacklisted mean to a worker?

Simply put, many workers who were added to the blacklist suddenly found themselves all but unemployable. A great many of the largest employers in the industry consulted this list before hiring workers, labourers and operators of all kinds, and would simply refuse to hire those listed. Sometimes other reasons would be given, but workers do not have the right to ask why they were not hired, so no reason is typically given.

For the workers affected, it was essentially the end of their career in construction, at least in the UK. Some managed to get by despite being out of work for the entirety of the recent housing boom. Even then, they and their families suffered due to the lack of income. Others were not so lucky – when they were forced out of work, many of the victims saw their marriages break down or were even forced to leave their homes and country in search of work in an area which did not subscribe to this particular blacklist (though the practice goes on in many parts of the world).

Were you on the black list?

You can find out if you were included on the Consulting Association’s list from the Information Commissioner’s Office here.

What was the result of the court case?

In short, the companies who participated in the black list scheme were ordered to repay the 71 victims who were part of this single case for the suffering and lost wages they endured. The average pay-out was around £80,000, but a few individuals received as much as £200,000.

Is this the end of the matter?

Not at all. This only applies to 71 workers, of more than 3000 on a single black list. Organisations like the Blacklist Support Group and unions like GMB and Unite are still working to see that everyone on the list is compensated.

Many labour advocates are also pushing for those responsible for decision making in the guilty organisations face personal repercussions for their actions, including possible jail time. Only time will tell if they will get their wish.

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Delayed £5m Blackburn Bus Station To Open this Easter

Blackburn, Lancashire’s problematic bus station is now to be open by Easter, despite the original contractor being sacked over safety concerns last summer. The new station is a part of the Pennine Reach programme, and was originally budgeted at nearly £5 million.

Innovative, possibly dangerous design

The bus station features more than 130 five meter glazing panels intended to give the station a dramatic, modern look. Unfortunately, somewhere between design and construction a series of problems developed.

The original contractors, Thomas Barnes & Sons Group PLC, said that they identified the safety concerns first, and wasted no time bringing them to the attention of the Council, stressing that delivering the design they chose within their stated budget would make delivering a safe structure difficult, if not impossible.

Independent structural engineers examined the structure and its worksite in April, but their report was shown only to the Council. Both the Council and Thomas Barnes & Sons have been closed-mouthed about what happened next, but by June, Barnes & Sons were officially out.

Eric Wright Construction was brought in to finish the project, and said they would be able to complete the structure safely – and at no additional taxpayer cost – with a revised deadline of Easter 2016.

Handover, bad weather and delays

Of course, turning a project of this scale over to another contractor is often a nightmare of expense and delays. Add the unexpected winter weather we just endured, and many people were expecting that Easter target to be missed. Despite the handover, the weather and even the loss of one of the infamous 5 metre by 1.5 metre glass panels to accident, Eric Wright’s Managing Director John Wilson recently announced that the bus station should be not only completed but open for business by Easter.

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Can the construction industry solve its credibility problem?

 

A lot of very influential people are saying that the UK’s construction industry has a distinct credibility problem, and it is hard to deny the allegation. Despite steady, sustained improvements in worker health and safety and a recovery from the recent economic crisis that is no less than dramatic, the industry is seen as ‘troubled’ by many and ‘a bunch of crooks’ by a vociferous few. Here is one very good summary of the debate itself, and some of the proposed solutions to the industry’s image problems.

In essence, Mr Morrell points out that not only does the public already lack faith in the ‘virtue’ of the construction industry as a whole due to what is seen as a culture of corporate dishonesty, the industry itself is poorly configured to do its job in the modern world. The result is a looming housing crisis and a populus already bracing itself for the next economic downturn.

Make no mistake – the construction industry is one of the cornerstones of the continuing recovery of the British economy, and a failure to address this lack of confidence in its leadership could threaten that recovery, affecting people all over the world.

The self-policing option

Whilst the construction industry is already to a large extent self-policing, Mr Morrell points out that one option for improving its public image would be to make the culture within the industry more ‘professional’ in the classic sense.  In the same way that lawyers and doctors have traditionally been responsible for upholding not just the skill requirements and certification of their practicing members, they also address appearances and public perception. It is not enough, in a ‘classically professional’ culture, to act with all propriety and in accordance with law and regulation. It is just as important to act in such a way that preserves ‘the appearance of propriety’ in all of your business-related and personal actions.

Now, none of the ‘professional’ professions are without their scandals, but they do not face the same image crisis that the construction industry faces. It is certainly an option for the industry, but what would that kind of a culture change mean?

Could the industry really buy into that kind of cultural change? Would individual contractors or workers accept this level of individual responsibility (and the penalties for perceived unprofessionalism even in the absence of evidence of actual misdeeds)? Would Large corporate interests accept that a board of their ‘peers’ would have the power to punish them (or even expel them from the industry) for the sake of improving the industry’s image?

It would be a hard sell, at the very least.

The regulatory option

The other option presented by Mr Morrell is much more modern – but not necessarily any more appealing for all that. He suggests that public confidence in the virtue and responsibility of the construction industry as a whole could be re-established by a regime of stricter and more all-encompassing regulation.

There are certainly arguments for this in history. Industries dating from the time of the industrial revolution have been plagued by what has been called ‘the race to the bottom’, as increased competition in an under-regulated field led to a substantial competitive advantage for those companies and individuals who were willing to cut corners and sacrifice the health and safety of their workers (and even their customers) in order to produce whatever they produced faster and cheaper than anyone else.

No one can argue against the fact that certain industries cannot rely on the free market to correct this flight to the worst possible practices. The need for at least some central regulation and preservation of minimum acceptable standards is inherent in every Western culture, even those not involved in Europe’s ‘ever closer union’ debate.

On the other hand, the UK’s construction industry already is heavily regulated, and those regulations have shown real results. The current regulatory regime is still producing steadily improved conditions and practices within the industry, and many feel the combination of the UK and EU regulations are already too much of a burden. Could imposing regulations on more aspects of the industry, simultaneously increasing the costs of compliance and limiting the potential for profits really improve the industry’s image that much without choking it into recession?

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Asbestos will not delay new Bolton interchange

Transport for Greater Manchester’s £48 million interchange project in Bolton hit a snag recently, as workers excavating the site discovered a small quantity of material that they immediately recognised as a possible Asbestos Containing Material.

Work in that area stopped briefly in accordance with proper safety procedures, and specially trained workers determined that the material did indeed contain asbestos. Peter Boulton, head of programme management services there, assures us that all of the asbestos contaminated material was disposed of properly, and excavations on the site began again quickly. It is believed that no workers were exposed to the harmful material, and the project has not suffered any substantial delay as a result.

Discoveries of this kind are not at all uncommon, especially when the land was used for commercial or industrial purposes before older buildings were demolished. As a result, most management teams include sufficient time to deal with asbestos finds in their schedule planning.

Situations just such as this are why it is so important to make sure all of your site workers have the latest safety training, and know how to identify and respond appropriately to hazardous materials and situations such as asbestos contamination. There are several UK Asbestos Training Association-approved courses that can help your workers detect and deal appropriately with asbestos-containing materials, for example, the Asbestos Awareness course.

If poorly trained, or even simply less asbestos aware workers had happened upon the material whilst excavating, many could have been exposed. This could have led to cancer or other health problems in many of them, often years or decades after exposure. Because it was spotted immediately, though, the entire matter was dealt with safely, quickly and inexpensively.

The asbestos clean-up follows other unexpected discoveries, including utility lines under the site which did not appear on the official plans. In the end, the project was redesigned but will still be delivered on schedule by the end of 2016, and under budget.

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