NextGen - Looking to construction’s future

Wednesday 11 April 2018

© Gardiner & Theobald

What does the future hold for the construction industry? That was the question posed to the NLA’s NextGen working group of younger professionals as they gathered at Gardiner & Theobald’s office.

The clearly interconnected answers ranged from an industry affected by Brexit and skills drop-off, increased automation for the ‘grunt’ elements of the design process, a concentration on wellbeing in the workplace, but also a sector deeply affected by affordability, diversity and image issues that may be partially eased through education and closer collaboration across the professions.

Session chair and head of offices at Lendlease Sherin Aminossehe opened the debate before the group split into four parallel discussions on: the future of the profession; workplace; affordable housing; and London within an international context.

HawkinsBrown architect Jack Stewart presented the first by saying that better places could result if designers were freed from time spent doing ‘grunt’ work like door schedules, which may come from increased automation and technology. He added that perhaps the way we build teams around projects might change, with designers and architects moving into other construction professions or even client side, with more collaboration and with designers concentrating more on inhabiting a new role as ‘data translators’.

Group two on workplace discussed how wellbeing is the key to the future of workplace and inclusivity, said HLM architect Anna Petersen, avoiding ‘gimmicks’ like slides or table tennis tables to attract millennial talent into the workplace. Futureproofing will be about more flexible working, and a change in attitude from companies to working from home and hot-desking, but the key for London will not be in attracting talent but retaining it, with affordability being one of the main obstacles.

Is there a risk of London being hollowed-out? Essentially, yes, said Peabody regional land manager Gilly Tobin representing her group. Attracting those in their 20s was easy; retaining those in their 30s when people want to start having a family, less so. Housing is tied to land value – so should we be thinking more about new housing types – co-housing, community land trusts, smaller Pocket homes, or even the Naked House model? Perhaps local authorities or the NHS could adopt something of the Swiss model of leasing back housing.

Finally, London ‘s development industry has already seen some impact from Brexit, said WYG associate director Mark Westcott, with skilled labour drying up and out-migration as a result of affordability issues across the board, as well as potentially detrimental effects on the numbers of ‘transient creatives’ London traditionally attracts. Devolved powers over taxation could help, but the professions have an image problem, not least in conveying the huge range of diverse jobs available in construction – could the professional bodies and institutes come together more efficiently than they are currently?

General discussion included points made about how the professions needed to ‘change or die’ in terms of acquiring new skillsets such as entrepreneurship, there was a tendency towards overspecialization, and construction has a lack of exposure in schools.

Aminossehe said she had been struck by the ‘interconnectedness’ between the topics, with innovation, affordability and how we present ourselves to politicians key concerns. The group had some suggestions for future initiatives too, beyond more, similar meetings such as the working group. Group members could usefully present schemes from their perspectives to show what their jobs entail, and potentially there could be a more formal Next Gen day with a structured output, backed by parent companies, or even a Next Gen manifesto. ‘I actually see the start of a movement of a way to get your voices heard within the property and construction industry’ said Aminossehe of what she termed this ‘crunch point’. ‘I’m really excited, and there’s a lot we can do together, in our small way, to start changing things. This is the chance to do something different.’

By David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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NextGen is an NLA initiative which identifies and supports young talent within the industry, and champions the professional development of the built environment’s future leaders. NextGen members are profiled in 50% of the full NLA programme, creating many opportunities to showcase new ideas and projects to the wider NLA network.