Could industry wide collaboration be part of the solution to tackling Brexit uncertainty?
By Murtaza Rizvi, Chair of RIBA Bristol & Bath and Architect at Austin Smith Lord, Bristol Studio.
Whether as individuals we voted Remain, Leave or not at all, there is one thing on which we can all agree: the vote on Brexit might be over and the decision made, but uncertainty around the implications lingers on.
A leading annual survey prior to the EU Referendum, found that only 15% of property and construction executives favoured a UK exit from the EU. One of the feared implications of leaving included the risk of increased project costs if the UK skills shortage were to worsen through reduction of free movement of labourers and skilled workers. Additional concerns included impact on free movement of goods within the EU, risk to community development and infrastructure investment, as well the possibility that collaborative research undertaken as part of the EU would be under threat.
At the same time, it has been argued that free movement of materials could be solved through the UK negotiating its own trade agreements with the EU and other importing areas, such as China and the USA. Ahead of the vote, Chairman of JCB Lord Bamford voiced support for the Leave campaign, convinced Brexit would cut the costs of bureaucracy so much that any additional losses incurred would easily be covered.
From an architecture perspective, however, survey results published by RIBA itself earlier this year painted a more pessimistic picture post-Brexit: 61% of respondents had had projects delayed, or put on hold, plus 37% seen projects cancelled. In total, 69% of the 1,100 RIBA members canvassed said they felt there would be a negative impact on the profession, plus 60% forecast the same for the built environment, as a whole.
So where does all this confusion leave us in the wider construction sector?
I spoke recently at a RIBA South West Brexit Briefing, on a panel alongside NBS and RIBA. The event focused on the economic outlook for the UK property market and construction industry, plus lessons learnt from previous periods of economic turbulence. Having listened to both my fellow speakers and the audience feedback, here are my three key takeaways regarding how construction can move forward during these times of uncertainty:
1. CREATE A ROBUST BUSINESS STRATEGY AND INVEST IN NEW TALENT
One feeling strongly and widely expressed was that practices and architects really can withstand times of turbulence like these and that the same goes for the sector at large. The importance of building resilience through succession planning was much emphasised, as was the benefit of having a good diverse workforce – helping to reinvigorate company culture with different ideas and fresh approaches.
A cornerstone of building resilience is having a good business plan. There can be the tendency amongst architects to be exceptionally good at designing, but less strong at managing a business with the future in mind – in uncertain times, there is no room for either/or; a successful, sustainable practice has to be skilled at both. It also needs a sound marketing strategy to get the message out there, communicating its core creative and truly understanding how best to meet the needs of clients.
Planning and strategy is vitally important, but so too is being agile and adaptable. When it comes to human resource, a dynamic team needs to be comfortable with an element of risk-taking if it is to harness the energy of more youthful talent, but balanced by the sense of responsibility that comes with experience. As generations move on, letting go can be difficult, but preparing for retirement of key personnel is critical.
2. EMBRACE AND ADOPT NEW TECHNOLOGY
According to IBM, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every single day – so much, that 90% of total data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. The numbers are staggering and irrefutable evidence why we simply cannot expect to manage data today in the same way we did pre-Internet.
Given this global megatrend in data growth and management, it is essential that we in construction are using the latest computer programmes and mobile applications, plus learning and employing new digital skills on an ongoing basis. Digital is effectively cascading down the construction supply chain, with use of Revit and NBS Create as just a few examples.
Clients are increasingly looking for more effective management of their built assets, with many clients now asking for BIM and whole-life costing. So, if clients want that data for managing their assets; architects, in turn, will increasingly be demanding manufacturers get their products in a BIM-compliant format for 3D-modelling if they hope to be specified. We can all push each other for the client.
To be an architect now we must continue to develop skills in computer systems and be able to transfer knowledge to those realising our designs on site. In the space of a few years, though, this paper-to-digital transition period will be gone.
3. COLLABORATE TO CREATE CLIENT-CENTRIC PROJECT TEAMS
As architects, we have the skills to help clients at the start of a project develop a business plan and explore the financial ‘value’ of proposals through feasibility studies. However, the trend of late seems to be towards less collaborative working than before, with architects bought onto projects later and taken off earlier. The problem is that often there is the belief that architects don’t care about cost when the truth is, a good architect see’s associated value and opportunity when it comes to investment and return on projects.
With traditional procurement where the architect does everything proving less common nowadays, the challenge is to look at ways to help create more client-centric project teams. For architects to be perceived as value drivers, we will need to collaborate better and more.
In this regard, joint project insurance might prove of interest, as does an approach where project partners combine and share discipline models, merging all records into one data-rich integrated project story. It is all about collaboration and communication, with the client being at the heart of the project.
IN CONCLUSION: CONFIDENCE AND CAUSE FOR CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM
In conclusion, RIBA Director of Practice Lucy Carmichael talked about how the RIBA are providing a strong voice for the profession and there are good reasons to be cheerful going forward:
“The RIBA has developed a programme of policy influence and professional support in response to Brexit, based on what members have been telling us matters to them; a healthy UK construction market, access to talented people, and an ability to do business easily at home and overseas. Although, we saw a drop in market confidence immediately after the referendum, we are now seeing a cautious optimism and a healthy pipeline of work in the short term, with some lingering anxieties about the longer term.”
With better business resilience, advanced digitalisation and more collaboration, an architect today can feel increasingly empowered and equipped to tackle the uncertainties of a post-Brexit world tomorrow.