BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL

The need for collaboration

There are many examples of best practice – but we are collectively failing to make the necessary changes at the pace required

Author: Gillian Charlesworth

17 April 2020

Since I became chief executive officer at the Building Research Establishment (BRE) last year, I've taken every opportunity to talk about shifting the culture of our industry. I've had several such opportunities, and I sense there's a huge appetite for culture change, but also a great deal of denial that we need to do so – and, crucially, a failure to understand why.

Attesting to the demand for change, a senior professional recently put it to me, somewhat forcefully, that BRE must focus on tackling zero carbon. Another person urged us to ensure complete clarity on the rules for cladding, saying that inadequate and unclear regulations continue to enable bad practice. We've agreed to meet and define the problem.

I'm delighted to lead BRE in contributing fully to safety and carbon reduction initiatives, as well as waste, resilience, resource management, air quality and the many other areas we have expertise in. But the point I've been making is that these huge challenges require much greater collaboration, new ideas, radical approaches and very different ways of working. No individual person or body can solve these deeply rooted problems. And, while there are plenty of examples of best practice, we are collectively failing to make the necessary changes at the necessary pace.

"People are talking about social value rather than construction outputs; there's a focus on long-term value and sustainability; and safety is in the spotlight"

Our record on progress is not good. Take diversity and inclusion – we've spent years working out why it's important and will spend at least as long fixing it. First, it was a question of fairness, access and equality. Organisations then began to see that promoting diversity as a core business tenet was a differentiator in attracting talent. Increasingly it became a business imperative, given the growing evidence that diverse and inclusive companies are more successful. Now there is a dawning realisation that we need far greater diversity, not just in terms of demographics but also thinking, to have a hope of finding the solutions that are needed.

We must then devise ways to implement these in a collaborative and outcome-driven way, with a sense of urgency about changing our methods, supply chains and business models. Looking at the lack of diversity in the sector it's clear we have a very long way to go if we continue at the current glacial pace, even if we've at least realised why its such an important issue.

"Looking at the lack of diversity in the sector it's clear we have a very long way to go"
Public expectation

I heard someone saying recently that the industry is going through its worst, lowest period for many years, at a time when there is a huge weight of public expectation on us. Many businesses are suffering from the impact of political and economic uncertainty. But we cannot allow excuses to flourish as there will never be a good time to change. Idealistic views about a different future are treated with a certain level of cynicism, but it's clear that government will act if we don't step up, and the extent of legislation will be directly related to our ability to self-regulate.

My answers? I urge all those who recognise and seek to address these issues to build and use their spheres of influence to challenge mindsets. It's happening already: people are talking about social value rather than construction outputs; there's a focus on long-term value and sustainability; and safety is in the spotlight.

A smarter approach to standards is emerging as well, with RICS leading moves towards international, consistent value and measurement. The recently published second edition of the International Construction Measurement Standards is set to enable greater investment in quality, performance and sustainability. BRE is also a partner of the Centre for Digital Built Britain and the Manufacturing Technology Centre in the Construction Innovation Hub, a four-year government-funded programme, that seeks to increase productivity, reduce cost and improve the performance of new buildings.

How much greater is the task of retrofitting existing stock and rendering our tall buildings safe and efficient? There has never been a more important time for us to take all these matters responsibly into our collective hands.

Gillian Charlesworth is chief executive officer at BRE and a former member of RICS global executive team gillian.charlesworth@bregroup.com

Related competencies include: Diversity inclusion and teamworking

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