Construction’s biggest challenge

Neville Webb, the Institute for Work Based Learning’s Director of Construction ProgrammesDuring National Apprenticeships Week, Director of Construction Programmes Neville Webb discusses how construction degree apprenticeships can help reinvigorate collaboration across the industry.

Apart from the obvious large scale challenges like a sluggish pipeline of government-funded projects, an overheating supply chain and a massive skills shortage there is one significant challenge which impacts on the very soul of the construction industry – collaboration.

In the 1970s, Britain’s construction industry suffered at the hands of a highly-unionised labour force and its direct response to an overall lack of empathy by management with the common worker.

Job protection strategies such as job demarcation were born out of fear of job losses and they placed a strangle hold around the construction site. It made the simplest of tasks a convoluted process involving more people and resources than were strictly necessary and prevented efficacious programming.

That was 40 years ago, with old fashioned work cultures on both sides stifling creativity and individualism. But fast forward into the 21st century and we’re facing a similar issue at professional level.

Management is stratified between those in similar roles doing the same kind of work and rarely crossing boundaries between disciplines or functionality. People are separated by the very bonds that tie them together, go into any large construction site and you’ll see it for yourself echoed in the welfare and accommodation arrangements billeting functional groups together rather than the work-face zone or outputs they share.

Education and training in the sector needs radical change. The industry needs to focus on a coherent strategy for collaborative team working at site management level.

The construction industry has always had a reputation as a hard, itinerant, dirty fingernail and very dangerous environment, where the ‘craic’ as some might put it, was strong.  Strong enough to counter the negatives and make the work almost bearable.

The erosion of collaboration threatens to overturn all we consider to be commensurate with smooth and efficient working. It’s one of the key attractions into the industry for many people – the unique site culture. And yet, paradoxically, this culture is being slowly eroded by the ever-increasing lamination of command and control management.

Tier upon tier of subcontractor layers together with columns of specialist professionals forming a matrix of communication confusion. Education and training in the sector needs a radical change.

The industry needs to focus on a coherent strategy for collaborative team working at site management level and a significant contribution to this is the ‘customs, practice and habits’ people bring to their role.

Degree apprenticeships

At Middlesex, we are developing a fully integrated Construction Management Degree Apprenticeship across the key site disciplines where collaborative learning is a fundamental part of the process.

It will help provide a more enriched learning experience and will contribute to a better understanding of how colleagues’ roles combine to create a successful project outcome.

This suite of construction management programmes has been designed to aid transformative change within the industry by acknowledging and promoting:

  • The gradual acceptance of the role of the ‘Construction Manager’ as a significant multi-faceted management role within construction organisations and now a recognised professional destination in its own right
  • The recognition of how the management of the construction process on any site or project can only be successfully achieved if a high level of collaboration between all the parties (particularly the professional team) is achieved
  • The adoption of BIM as a management tool requires a significant culture change to facilitate effective use
  • The deployment of Integrated Project Delivery to ensure a ‘one-team’ approach without unnecessary ‘man-marking’ where duplication and omissions in process are minimised.

Each of the key construction site management team leader roles has a Level 6 Degree Apprenticeship associated with it.

These apprenticeships lead to honours degree qualifications, are work-based and are designed to have an interdependent structure based on common and shared management themes within their specific disciplines.

That is, they all address the constructor’s ‘holy trinity’ of cost, quality and delivery plus other shared themes and they all address the needs of their personal construction businesses. The apprenticeships are also designed to enable apprentices to gain relevant professional body recognition.

An inexperienced practitioner can join the Level 4 Higher Apprenticeship programme and could complete at Technician level and gain a Certificate of Higher Education. Or alternatively, complete at Level 5 and gain a Diploma of Higher Education or go on to complete the Level 6 Degree Apprenticeship in any of the following fields:

  • Construction Site Management
  • Civil Engineering Site Management
  • Construction Quantity Surveyor
  • Building Services Engineering Site Management
  • Construction Design Management

Experienced practitioners with no formal qualifications but over five years’ experience in the role could join the Level 6 top-up degree as a Degree Apprentice or if self-sponsoring, as a mature student.

The new apprenticeship initiative has the potential to transform the construction sector. By developing fully rounded construction professionals that have the knowledge, skills, values and behaviours that the industry requires, we can shape the future of the physical environment we all live and work in for the better.

To discuss the options and how Construction management can apply to yourself email or telephone 02084115050. I will also be attending the MIPIM Convention from 13th-17th March 2017 and will be available for meetings.

Science & technology

Urban gulls: researching ‘public enemy #1’

Professor Tom DickinsA collaboration between Middlesex University and the University of the West of England is hoping to find new ways to help urban gulls live in harmony with humans. In this post, Professor of Behavioural Science Dr Tom Dickins talks gull science.

An open bag of chips at the seaside has always been fair game for a passing gull. I remember this from holidays in Devon and Cornwall over 30 years ago. It was considered part of the experience – we were getting closer to nature, but in recent years, we humans appear to have become less tolerant of gulls. Last summer in particular, the press reported a small number of negative incidents in lurid detail. For example, The Mirror (23 July 2015) published an article entitled ‘Seagull menace: Truth about Britain’s new Public Enemy No1 following spate of attacks. This story listed raids on picnics, aggressive defence of chicks and also attacks on pets. It then presented a sequence of photographs of a lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) eating a starling (Sturnus vulgaris), above the caption ‘Bird murder’. Clearly The Mirror had taken a negative view of these events, in spite of pointing out the protected status of gulls and claims from conservation groups that these birds were behaving normally – this is really a problem of two populations trying to live alongside one another.

During my lifetime the number of urban gulls has increased, while coastal populations are generally in decline. Overall, gulls are under threat and are of conservation concern. The Guardian (6 June 2010) carried a conservation-oriented story earlier in this growing controversy, pointing out the RSPB’s claims that any negative intervention, such as culling urban breeding gulls would challenge their status even further. At various points the UK government has promised to look into this, and under the last administration allocated £250,000 of DEFRA funding for research into managing urban gull populations. This money was promptly cut after the last election and there are currently no plans to support research.

A Great Black-backed Gull predating a Kittiwake nest (Photo: Tom Dickins, 2015)
A great black-backed gull predating a kittiwake nest (Photo: Tom Dickins, 2015)

What needs researching? 

The basic argument is that coastal populations are under resource stress, quite possibly induced by climate change. For example, gulls are surface feeders, diving to about one metre below the surface of the sea to catch fish. These fish are in this one-metre zone as it is the right temperature for them, but with rising sea temperatures this layer is increasing beyond the depth that gulls can reach. There is also evidence that changes in the North Atlantic Oscillation are shifting fish stocks and impacting upon breeding success in other ways. Stressed populations will disperse if they can, and find other resource, and gulls are not only good at fishing but also scavenging. Most gull species are excellent generalists as the predation of a starling indicates. From my own observations of large gulls they not only eat fish, but also neighbours’ chicks and other birds. Indeed, great black-backed gulls (Larus marinus) regularly predate kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) colonies and other marine birds as a staple part of their diet during the breeding season. This is nature – red in tooth and claw. Gulls need to convert whatever calories they can find into chicks.

The gulls I watch in the wild are not randomly distributed about the coast. They are expert foragers and make sound decisions about where to position their breeding sites and where to hunt. Great black-backed gull pairs breed in isolation or small clusters and appear to nest very close to kittiwake colonies at my field site. This enables a regular mid-morning and mid-afternoon visit to take eggs and later chicks from particular zones in the site. The great black-backed gulls also take other cliff nesting and coastal birds in flight, either at take off or landing, to supplement their diet. There is some evidence that these predated populations choose to be close to a great black-backed gull nest as this apex predator actually deters other gull species and thereby reduces predation costs.

Ground nesting gulls, such as great black-backed gulls, but also herring gulls (Larus argentatus) and lesser black-backed gulls, are not only threatened by neighbours looking at their chicks as a resource, but also by ground predators such as foxes and rats. Needless to say, gulls will defend their interests in all of these situations and we have been researching this in wild populations recently.

So, gulls need to have access to food resource but also to defensible nest sites. Urban planners have not thought about these issues when designing towns and cities, but they have organised urban spaces into areas with higher proportions of food outlets, outdoor seating, green spaces and tall buildings. Buildings, especially with flat roofs, are like islands isolated from the ebb and flow of people below and also from many ground predators. Moreover, building managers usually take great pains to control rodents so even rats are few and far between at this height, and heat will leak from these buildings providing a fairly stable thermal environment for breeding.

Studying urban gulls in the City of Bath

In collaboration with Dr Chris Pawson (University of the West of England) and Bath and North East Somerset Council, we are embarking on a project in the city of Bath to map the behaviours of the large urban gull population that is resident there. The project will involve directed field work – accessing roofs, mapping breeding sites, and counting eggs and chicks, and observing behaviour – but it will also involve the citizens of Bath reporting on incidents involving gulls through a dedicated website.

Through all of this data we hope to gain a sense of the gulls’ decisions: Where are they most likely to breed and nest? Where do they find it easiest to forage? How does this change across the year, across the day? In doing this we hope to see Bath as a gull does – a true bird’s eye view. And then we can use this information to suggest benign interventions to benefit the gulls and humans that live in the city.

It is likely that some of the advice we produce will be common sense; for example, the nature of food waste disposal in retail areas of the city may need better protection and different organisation. The behaviour of citizens around gulls may also need some direction. But we may also be able to think of how to design gull neighbourhoods, which remove these birds from direct contact with people while allowing them to thrive. We may also be able to change the nature of the interaction from one of antagonism to one of celebration, as some have done in the North East.