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Multi-disciplinary teams are the key to the future

B&ES chief executive Blane Judd explains why it is so important for contractors to encourage multi-skilling

The big market drivers and funding schemes like the Green Deal, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), and Feed-in Tariffs (FiTs) all rely on installers having a complete grasp of how a technology fits into a building services system. They must be able to turn a complex theory into practice.

If you are not equipped for that, you will simply not thrive in our changing marketplace. It means you must be able to provide a multidisciplinary approach and a multiskilled workforce.

Today's construction client also has higher expectations. They are insistent that the building engineering services sector works in a more collaborative and flexible way.

We all recognise that integrated project teams are the way forward, but they are still the exception rather than the rule. Integrated project teams get started on site, on average, six months before conventional supply chains; they deliver sustainable projects on time and to budget, giving far better value for money to end clients. The post-hand-over experience is always better too.

They do this by working in a coherent team from the very early stages of the design right through until commissioning and beyond. However, not everyone can work this way. More and more B&ES members realise this is their future and are investing in the necessary management and technical skills to ensure they can contribute fully to a collaborative project team.

However, the short-termism that prevents some clients from adopting a more 'intelligent' approach to procurement has not gone away. This prompts many contractors to quote sub-economic prices in a (literally) desperate bid to secure work in the reckless hope that they can quote for variations during the project process and enhance their margins in an ad hoc way. This is the road to ruin.

Happily, most of our members stay well clear of those situations. We should be confident in our own estimating talents to assess the real price needed to deliver a quality, resilient end product with a healthy, but not excessive, profit margin built in. If the client is not prepared to pay for that, then we must walk away. Corner cutting and risk taking can only end in disaster for both the contractor and the client.

The long-term difficulty this is creating is that quality firms with proper pricing strategies are losing work to sub-economic tendering and this puts their whole future in doubt. We must continue to educate clients about the minefield they are walking into when they push prices below what is economically viable - and the Government, as the industry's largest client, has a key role to play in this by adopting sensible, practical approaches to its own projects.

And there are economic drivers that could improve this situation. For example, building owners are seeing their energy bills rise and many more now recognise the importance of reliability and resilience.

Upgrading boilers, improving control systems, carrying out full system commissioning, and the judicious use of renewables will all play a part in the massive challenge facing us of refurbishing and refreshing the existing building stock to meet users' need to keep running costs - not to mention carbon emissions - under control.

Building engineering services firms are the key experts in energy conservation and so the burden of improving building performance falls on us. We have a long-term role to play and the emphasis on lifetime performance that is now a feature of sustainable projects means maintenance becomes even more crucial. A good maintenance regime is a critical factor in ensuring long-term efficiency of installed products. An A* boiler will quickly become a B rated one if not installed, commissioned and maintained correctly.

Our members are excited by the 'alternative' renewable and low carbon technologies available, but are not taking their eye off the ball when it comes to 'conventional' solutions. Boiler upgrades, improving water heating systems, adding controls, and, crucially, ensuring new systems are properly integrated with existing services are all more important than ever. Integration is the key and B&ES members are particularly skilled in this area.

Has there ever been a time when we have faced such a combination of factors? We have a long and deep recession still continuing, enormous infrastructure challenges as a result of minimal public sector investment, the enormous challenge of reducing carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, plus demographic issues like our ageing workforce and a generation of young people largely unimpressed by the opportunities this profession offers.

It looks tough out there, but there is also all to play for.

18 April 2012

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