Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Things Will Never Be The Same

One of _space group's BSF schools, Washington School in Sunderland

July 5th 2010 is likely to be a milestone in the history of the construction industry. Michael Gove put an end to the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, delivering one of the biggest blows to an industry in recent history. Without a doubt, thousands of construction jobs will be lost because of this announcement and the decision to halt spending on new schools.

One of my greatest surprises was the construction industry’s shock over the scale of the cuts. The coalition government began making noises some time ago that they were going to be aggressive in their review and early signs of Michael Gove’s subtlety were not particularly promising, so we had good time to prepare ourselves for the inevitable. Personally, I believe that it could have been considerably worse because live projects could have been scrapped.

Not only will this announcement affect the work available to our industry, Gove implied that we have all been wasteful and inefficient, and this is bound to have implications for those involved in construction in the future. Our industry responded to the game in town at the time and, for the past five years, many of us have been saying that BSF is wasteful and there must be a better way to deliver the programme.

I believe that the coalition have a window of around 12 to 18 months to sort out the country’s balance sheet, and then there will be an expectation that investment starts again in solving the problems of our schools estates, which are in poor condition due to a lack of capital investment since cuts made by Margaret Thatcher’s government. The education of our children is a very emotive subject and the idea of children being taught in crumbling buildings can be politically damaging for any government.

Michael Gove has appointed a committee to look at how we can deliver our capital spending programmes more efficiently. It is relevant that a director of property from Tesco is on this panel, as is the operations director from Dixons, as we are all aware of how aggressive retailers can be in driving down cots and forcing procurement approaches. I do believe there is some waste in our industry and there are better ways to do things, which could be signposted by this committee.

Technology plays a great part in improving efficiency, and working together, in a more integrated way, will help us to do this. _space group has been using Building Information Modelling for the past five years and this technology has helped us in this way, but encouraging the industry to take on this, and other technological changes, is a difficult sell and one that I think we must keep working on.

There is also opportunity for pre fabrication as a means of aiding school estate, but again this has not been embraced by many, with more traditional approaches being preferred.

As an industry, what we must do is accept where we are, and after we have all recovered from the shock and the impact these changes will have, we need to review our delivery approaches and invest in research to be able to offer increased efficiency in the future. When the new government do decide on the best ways to procure new schools, we should be proactively involved in the process and helping deliver more for less.



Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Thinking differently about housing

I have been disturbed by the number of people, particularly young people, who are unable to find a home of their own. To me, having a place of your own is one of the most important aspects of life, but finding an affordable home in the current market is very tough as land values still remain excessive and construction is expensive and wasteful, which sends the price of a new home soaring.

For the past two years, _space group has been working hard to develop a truly affordable home. We have been working with several organisations from around the world to piece together what we feel may help. This has resulted in the creation of our own affordable home – _spacehus.

Our _spacehus brings together Swedish timber technology, an Italian heating system and Japanese photovoltaics to create structures we believe can be both affordable and low energy. However, there is clearly a sustainability problem here in that, in order to reach our goals, we have scoured the globe for innovation and quality of product! Why? Because the levels of innovation and quality abroad are simply not found in the UK at present.

One of the things we hope _spacehus will do is help to encourage our manufacturers to embrace the opportunities to develop leading edge technology for low energy living. Not only that, but we hope that our timber structures will change the stigma the British attach to pre-fabs and timber framed housing brought on by the cheap construction methods used in the 1960s and 70s. In Northern Europe, thousands of homes are built with a timber base, and as we’re able to use some of the lessons local manufacturers and designers have learnt, we can ensure that our building is made of the highest quality materials, producing an airtight structure.

Although current Government cutbacks, which have affected the HCA to the tune of £230m, make the ways in which homes can be delivered uncertain, there continues to be a housing need and we are confident that a way to deliver affordable homes for those who need them will be found.

_space group has recently submitted Planning Approval for a prototype home on our site in Newcastle. We will be testing the performance criteria of all of the _spacehus systems, as well as using it to demonstrate the power of this idea. We plan to be delivering our first commercial homes at the beginning of 2011.

Watch this _space for more news on this exciting development!