Alan Shingler on the future of construction in The Sunday Times

15th June 2015

Alan Shingler was interviewed by journalist Jim McClelland (editor of SustMeme Magazine) for a supplement, entitled Future of Construction, distributed by the Sunday Times. The article can be read here. Some of the themes covered in the interview, which include exporting UK design talent abroad and the future of the residential construction, are included in the extract below.

Jim McClelland: In what ways can working on overseas projects within different physical environments, policy frameworks and business markets challenge the way we think about buildings and construction in the UK?

Alan Shingler: Working internationally is a two-way street: the UK practices that are hired to export their talents across the world inevitably broaden their range of experience and in turn import skills and knowledge back in the UK market. Aside for the obvious climate challenges that the Middle East provides to the design process, the design and procurement period is also significantly shorter, often almost half that of the UK. Lack of time puts a huge amount of pressure on quality and cost; You can't achieve all three. In the UK we typically place greater emphasis on quality and cost but after working in the Middle East it demonstrates we could improve on speed but it's a careful balance and not sustainable if the pendulum swings too far in one direction of the time, quality, cost triangle.

JM: To what degree is the exporting of construction skills abroad important not just for the economy and international development, but for expanding the experience and expertise of the trades and professions in a virtuous spiral of learning and growth, without which the industry would simply be poorer, smaller and worse?

AS: It has huge value: new constraints, objectives and context push you to challenge convention and seek new ideas to improve design performance.

Working at Masdar City– with its extreme climate, stringent KPIs and design savvy occupiers – put issues of efficiency and performance into acute focus. These unique conditions gave our design team the opportunity to deliver the LEED Platinum Siemens Middle East Headquarters, an exemplar building and process that we used to developed skills that we use across our UK projects. For example, on Siemens we used parametric computer software to find a façade solution that allowed maximum daylight into the buildings without any direct sunlight hitting the glass. Although the UK does not have a temperature highs anywhere near that of Abu Dhabi, the concept of using computer modelling to test designs at the early concept stages is a skill that was honed by working within the harsh climate of Abu Dhabi.

JM: Might the UK construction industry be said to behave like a tourist when working on projects abroad – prepared to be adventurous and try new things, freed from the constraints of custom, but then sinking back into the old ways on return?

AS: I would say no. We work internationally where there is an opportunity for innovation and ambition form the client to achieve high quality design. This is also true for the UK.

In our experience it is less about geography and more about the ambitions of the client. Whether in the UK or in the Middle East, our ability to deliver innovation is often informed by the brief and a shared ambition with the client.

JM: How (un)fair is it to say that, given UK planning policy and housebuyer history, residential construction is the sector least likely to be open to adopting new ideas (from abroad), the market most resistant to change?

AS: The residential sector is bespoke to its environment and culture. Traditional housebuilding is often limited by conventional procurement and existing supply chain. If the developer knows he can sell a standard product due to location and housing shortage preventing choice, why take the risk on innovation.

At Sheppard Robson we relish innovation for all building types and housing is no exception. We won 3 of the Design for Manufacture sites launched by ODPM in 2005 and designed the UK's first Code for Sustainable Homes Level 6 home in 2007.

PRS (private rental sector) is a market that would benefit from taking a more innovative approach and lessons could be learnt from the U.S and parts of Europe where this market is more mature than ours in the UK.

JM: What in the future of (residential) construction might change that picture/accelerate that change?

AS: BIM. There is a massive opportunity to achieve greater standardisation in design whilst still allowing the architecture to be bespoke to its context. A common chassis of components designed in BIM has the potential to speed up design, procurement and performance all at a lower cost. However it requires a long term view from the developer. Our clients for new housing at East Wick and Sweetwater at the Olympic park are planning this approach with Sheppard Robson retained to undertake this design and coordination role for 1500 new homes

Alan Shingler RIBA

Chairman, Partner