The New Elizabethan Age

With the sad passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth it is opportune to consider how the UK construction industry developed during her reign from 1952 to 2022. Here are some highlights.

In 1952, with only 7 years passed since the end of the Second World War, a key priority throughout the country was clearance of bomb sites and slums. In many parts of the country multi occupancy flats were built as the replacement. At the time these were seen as a huge improvement on what had been before. Because there was a lot of repetitive construction, Local Authorities started to trial a new form of contract. Rather than the traditional approach of an architect designing each building and the contractor then being appointed, selective tendering or negotiated contracts with the contractors was used. The contractor then designed and built the blocks of flats, marking the birth of the design and build contract. By the 1960s high rise flats were being constructed in most major cities in the UK and Design & Build had become established as a form of contract.

In 1965 the National Building Regulations were introduced, replacing local bye laws and standardising construction throughout the country. These remain the basis of the regulations used today.

1966 saw the completion of Centre Point a major office development, and at the timer quite a futuristic office construction. At 34 storeys it was the first London skyscraper. Despite this, it stood empty for 9 years. In 2015 it was converted from offices to luxury flats.

By 1979 the industry was starting to adopt Management Contracting, a new form of contractual relationship. This sees the Client appointing the Management Contractor to manage the individual works contractors which should lead to efficiencies in construction. It is ideal for complex projects.

Construction started on Eurotunnel in 1988. Privately financed, it was undertaken by Channel Tunnel Group/France–Manche a consortium comprising banks and 10 construction companies. In many ways it was a forerunner of PFI which was widely used from the mid-1990s. In 1994 the tunnel opened and started to operate.

1994 also saw publication of ‘Constructing the Team’ by Sir Michael Latham, followed in 1998 by ‘Rethinking Construction’ by Sir John Egan. Both of these reports encouraged the industry to adopt new ways of working. Ideas which have slowly been adopted over the following twenty years. A direct result of Egan’s report was the 1998 Construction Act. Its purpose was to improve cash flow and dispute resolution, something which still remains an issue today. The Construction Playbook published in 2020 is the most recent attempt to drive a change in thinking and approach to construction projects.

By 2003 the government was trying to encourage modern methods of construction (MMC) as they tried to drive down the cost of public housing and increase output. A topic which has been regularly addressed since, most recently by Mark Farmer in his 2016 report ‘Modernise or Die’.

2004 marked the completion of the Scottish Parliament building. This project was dogged with problems, going well over budget for costs and time. One of the problems was that the client did not understand the process, with numerous changes to the requirement after construction had started. Construction Management had been the form of contract used, giving this method very bad publicity and leading to a decline in its use until quite recently.

In 2007 the new Wembley Stadium was also completed. Another landmark project, Wembley Stadium demonstrates that problems can occur with all contract types, in this case Traditional. The successful contractor, Multiplex, bid at a level well below their competitors and the client foolishly accepted this. The result was that instead of the project taking 3 years and costing £326 million, it took 5 years and an estimated £390 million. Although much litigation was settled out of court.

A new planning white paper was published in 2007 which allowed Planners to require renewable energy facilities as part of the planning approval process. The following year saw the publication of the government’s first strategy for sustainable construction. Having recognised that various government departments were asking for different green requirements for their buildings they consolidated this into a common strategy.

2008 also saw the completion of Heathrow Terminal 5. This was a management contract, but it did come in on budget and within the time frame. It all went smoothly except for the last element, the baggage handling system which failed to deliver as promised, initially causing a lot of disruption. The project is an example of best practice, with the whole construction team working together to develop innovative solutions.

In 2010 the newly elected government commissioned a number of reviews to look at how they could bring down the cost of construction. One of these was the James report, recommending standardised school design to reduce the cost of school construction. It has not been fully followed but standard modular designs were more widely used as a result.

As part of its focus on driving down both the cost of building construction and operation, the government identified Building Information Modelling, or BIM, as a key enabler. In 2011 it stated that by April 2016 all government projects should be designed using BIM. This has been a catalyst for the industry to adopt BIM.

In 2011 the Olympic Park in London was opened, a success story for construction with the project coming in slightly under budget and one year early. This used a mixture of contracts; Traditional and Design & Build.

This was followed in 2012 by the completion of the Shard with a £435 million budget, constructed using a Traditional contract.

By 2013 clients were starting to recognise that, during their life, building operating costs exceed construction costs. Until that point most focus was on driving down construction costs. We are now starting to see an approach to procurement which is less lowest cost and more value driven.

To encourage the construction industry to plan for the future, the government also published its Construction Strategy, written in conjunction with the industry and setting performance targets to be achieved by 2025.

In 2014 the Leadenhall Building, or Cheese Grater, was completed. This made significant use of MMC with 83% of the building’s components constructed off-site.

On 14th June 2017 there was the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower Fire. The investigation into Grenfell was split into a number of independent reviews, with Dame Judith Hackett appointed to look into the fire regulations and systems which implement these. It found that:

  • The Building Regulations lacked clarity and in some cases were contradictory.
  • There was a lack of overall accountability for the project’s safe design.
  • Some product testing and labelling was questionable with fire doors from a number of manufacturers subsequently failing to meet the tests they claimed to pass.
  • A combustible cladding was selected which contributed to the fire.
  • Windows and fire stops were incorrectly installed.
  • Building maintenance was inadequate, with the fireman’s lift inoperative.

The findings and subsequent enquiry were damming of the overall culture and competence of the industry which was described as a “race to the bottom” and “gaming the system” using value engineering.

While the review focused on fire safety most of the failings apply equally to all aspects of construction.

In response, the government has introduced the Building Safety Bill which applies most of Dame Judith’s recommendations. This is expected to be in operation by 2023. To ensure implementation, the Building Safety Regulator has been formed. This will require checks and balances throughout the design process with contractors required to show that buildings will be safe. The Social Housing White Paper was also issued to make clear the standards that every social tenant in England is entitled to expect from their landlords.

2020 saw the coronavirus pandemic forcing the world to self-isolate and change working practices.

This presented construction at its best, with rapid assembly of Nightingale hospitals around the country. It also acted as a catalyst for change as companies adapted to new working practices. On site there was better planning and scheduling of processes with increased use of offsite manufacture and as people adapted to home-working, there was increased use of cloud based digital technologies, not only for design but also for video communication. By responding to the needs off the time the Construction Leadership Council becoming an effective voice for the industry.

Looking to the future, digitisation is likely to continue as a key factor for construction. Not just for design but using the data we hold in many other ways. Augmented and Virtual Reality will help during design, construction and maintenance. Product identification via microchips, bar and QR codes will help with final inspections and subsequent maintenance and refurbishment. The information we hold on projects will inform decision making, improve efficiencies in building use, operation and maintenance and enable aspects of sustainability such as the circular economy.

This brief summary of the New Elizabethan age is an extract from Competitive Advantage’s online training programme Construction Industry Overview which is intended for the person new to the construction industry. A free webinar Introduction to the UK Construction Industry is also available. And you can also download our Timeline for the UK Construction Industry.