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Rethinking construction inspires missionary zeal

It was a bit like the last night in the chapter house before this sturdy band of Anglo Saxon monks set off to convert the pagans in the dark forests beyond the Rhine: murmured accounts of encouraging preliminary forays among the Hunnish tribes, muttered recitations of the credo, emotional professions of faith, quite a lot of practice preaching.

Construction people are naturally dogged performers rather than inspiring but at last week's EMAP-sponsored colloquium at the RIBA, How To Re-Think Construction, you couldn't remain unmoved in the face of deep missionary commitment to such an admirable theology.

Its basic text is the Egan report and it has a band of apostles known, enigmatically, as M4I. It's more easily remembered as The Movement for Innovation.

In answer to the audience member who got an unsatisfactory reply, yes it is unfunded by any official body or government department and has set its own mandate but it's none the worse for that.

Christiani and Nielsen managing director Alan Crane is chairman, and there is a small cadre of functionaries seconded from supporting companies plus some heavy-duty institutional supporters: Construction Industry Council supremo Robin Nicholson was chairman and apostle in chief for the RIBA event which more than a hundred people from construction attended. A disappointingly small number of them were architects.

The event had its share of laborious and preachy speeches but the inspiring sessions were the case-study presentations - conducted in what the week before last were known as workshops, and from last week as breakout sessions.

Here were real examples of how Latham/Egan principles could work in the real world. They ranged from a half million plus pounds addition of an upper floor to a modest structure through a major London Underground project which is about to start, to a substantial office block by Foggo Associates.

In all these, one way or another, there was partnering among, though not necessarily always between the procure, supply, install, construct and design teams; there was a team commitment to a common goal, often supported by cash incentives; design was pitched in the direction of component assembly so that as much as possible was prefabricated off site.

It wasn't mentioned, but most of the people paying for these projects were serial clients who had been persuaded that deploying a rational best- practice construction approach might be less expensive and might, if the building were completed on time or earlier, be quite profitable.

The cumulative effect of these and the dozens of case-study projects currently on site is that the aims of Egan are undoubtedly achievable - providing those missionaries do their stuff in the coming years and bring about a cultural change in construction.

Chairman Nicholson was alive to the problems: how to learn lessons from the demonstration projects, how to manage failure, how to engage the one- off client, how to raise the topic of life-cycle costing. Not least was how to value design. And there are indeed problems.

One, it emerged at one of the breakouts, is that ninety per cent of clients (presumably serial clients) are resistant to the idea of innovation by their construction teams. But, as one participant pointed out, when you went into a supermarket, one of the client types under discussion, you didn't expect suddenly to have to change your mode of purchasing food.

No more could the construction industry blame its clients if they decided that the existing way of buying construction services was perfectly fine.

Why were clients resistant to contractural innovation? Well would you not want to very carefully examine a proposal put forward by one of your suppliers to eliminate price competition? Especially when the supplier was a builder?

Lest you think the above missionary analogy stretched, Nicholson in his wind-up speech proclaimed openly, 'This is a religious movement.' It is too.

The next phase in proselytising the dark forests beyond the Rhine is a thousand-strong invited audience meeting on July 19 in Birmingham where a metaphorical 39 Articles are to be nailed to the cathedral doors of the country's largest industry.

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