The Construction Playbook: A design transformation point of view

With the recent publication of the UK government’s Construction Playbook aimed at anyone procuring publicly funded works, there’s a renewed call for our industry to reform not just the technical aspects of construction but also its design practices, working culture and behaviours. Lesley Waud, global head of design transformation at Atkins, takes a look.

The Playbook discusses more than a dozen policies, but for me there are two key ingredients from a design transformation point of view: the need for more outcome-focused specifications and the right commercial models to promote the right industry behaviours.

The importance of first steps

It’s heartening to see the government recognise some of the challenges and opportunities inherent in how the construction industry currently operates. These include the increasing importance of not just diving straight into infrastructure projects as soon as we get an instruction from a client, but to spend time planning the right approach upfront to ensure the most successful outcomes. This has become especially valuable on multi-team projects operating in a world now driven by data.

How do we set up the information and data standards? How do we ensure we’ve got the interoperability we need between everyone’s respected systems? People are often impatient and want to see firms churn out design and move to site as quickly as possible, but the government has drawn attention to the considerable benefits, throughout delivery, of considering questions like these in the project initiation stage.

As designers, it is critical that we understand the impact of the decisions we’re taking from the earliest stage of a project, right from inception through into the detailed design. Traditionally, that would have cost, time and quality-focused, but we’re now seeing a considerable shift to additional key elements such as sustainability and social value reflected in the Playbook.

Fundamentally, what’s being asked of designers is to develop a solution that achieves the outcomes with the best balance of all of these attributes. This includes the understanding that the best technical solution is not always the most balanced solution that achieves the outcomes in the right way, with the least environmental impact. Likewise, the best economic outcome is no longer just about the cheapest price, but about whole-life cost and impact – essentially, the bigger picture.

Recognising the power of the collective

The government, and our clients, want to see more standardisation but that doesn’t come easily to a competitive industry that is always looking for ways to stand out from the crowd.

Instead of coming together to do something collectively, there is often considerable duplication of effort; designers and contractors compete to lead and we are all creating our own versions of an approach that clients find very frustrating. This is all wasted effort and we could add far greater value if we simply focused on interoperability rather than unique solutions.

Similarly, the ambition to move to more offsite manufacture will remain stagnant if there aren’t sufficient product volumes generated from across the industry to justify the business case for investing in manufacturing capability for new assemblies and components.

At its heart, the challenge is a cultural and behavioural one because many of us have come into the industry to create and to come up with solutions, and we don’t want to cede control of that creative process to someone else. It’s this cultural element that we need to address as a priority. One solution is that the differentiator for an organisation going forward is how we go about creating things and helping our clients to achieve their outcomes, rather than what we create for them.

We’ve got to go on a journey

So, how do we as an industry collectively get behind the proposals laid out in the Construction Playbook and work together to make a change for the better? The fact is that the way we construct things is going to change over time and that’s not something to feel threatened by but a huge opportunity for us all.

At Atkins, we’ve been on our own journey of design transformation, which is why the Construction Playbook resonates so powerfully with us. We’ve been seeking to address that cultural shift we see needing to take place by educating our business, regionally and globally, around the importance of focusing on outcomes. The importance of standardising and collaborating, understanding the significance of data and information, and using this insight to better advise our clients and inform the business decisions we’re taki

ng. Doing all of this is helping us to recognise the impact that different design options could have on the different project parameters we now need to consider.

We’re already on this journey – what we want now is to go on it with the wider Industry.

With up to £37bn of infrastructure contracts being brought to market over the next year, the Construction Playbook’s core aims are for the industry to:

  • Deliver better, faster, greener solutions.

  • Support recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • Build the economy for the future.

(Lesley Waud, Global head of design transformation, Atkins)

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