What if the press got hold of it?

Managing conflicts of interest is a fundamental ethical challenge for the surveying profession, and one that arises on a daily basis at firms large and small, as I found out for this business advice piece for Modus magazine. Impartiality has never been more important, or more under scrutiny: the internet and a relentless 24-hour news cycle have made public life increasingly transparent, while a long list of scandals, from the collapse of Enron to MPs’ expenses and LIBOR rigging, have severely dented confidence in traditional institutions. In response, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors is undertaking a major review of its guidelines – conflicts of interest account for a very small number of complaints against RICS members but it expects this to increase as awareness grows. I interviewed its head of regulation about how members can protect themselves, why client consent is not enough, and applying the “Daily Mail test” to every decision.

Billion-dollar arguments

In good times or bad, wherever there is a building site, there is almost certain to be an argument about payment. Very low margins, long payment chains and “risk dumping” on subcontractors are common causes, but the complexity inherent in even the simplest building projects can lead to conflict. So perhaps it’s no surprise to hear of the rise of the “mega-dispute” where the sum contested is in excess of US$1bn– the natural consequence of the rise of the global mega-project, with firms from many countries working together to deliver massive infrastructure schemes. Whether conflicts are resolved swiftly or escalate into protracted court battles is down to specialists in dispute resolution, a dynamic and evolving field – and probably the most stable job in construction. In this article for Modus, the magazine of the RICS, I investigated why construction remains such a contentious industry and whether alternative approaches to dispute resolution could help.

Concrete in disguise

Concrete is a slippery, shape-shifting thing in the summer issue of Concrete Quarterly magazine, which my company Wordmule produces on behalf of the Concrete Centre. It scales great heights as a super-slender New York skyscraper, takes on the surface texture of wood in a new office interior, assumes a quiet dignity for two World War I memorials, conceals hidden pipes for low-energy heating and cooling, and camouflages itself beneath a wildflower meadow for a green roof in London.

Cover of Concrete Quarterly Summer 2015

Crossrail: 40 years young

Last year marked an important milestone for Crossrail: its 40th birthday. London’s new east-west link was first proposed in the 1974 London Rail Study, even if it only broke ground 35 years later, after decades of reports, failed legislation and repeated balking at the high costs of the scheme. This is a tediously familiar tale in the recent history of the UK’s transport infrastructure. There has been a consistent lack of political will to push through major projects, leaving strategically important schemes mired in the planning system or dropped abruptly with a change of government. As a result, the UK lags behind other developed nations – ranked ninth overall in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, but only 27th for the quality of its transport network.

Transport is essential to the UK economy, and there is an urgent need for investment in roads, rail and airport capacity to ease congestion, support growth and accommodate 10m additional citizens by 2035. It is a critical juncture for key projects including HS2, Crossrail 2, much-needed rail improvements in the North and airport expansion in the South-East, and if the UK is not to grind to a halt in 20 years’ time, we have to start now. Political consensus and stability will be essential to delivering these aims – but unfortunately, we are a month away from the least predictable general election in decades. In this article on the next government’s transport policy for Estates Gazette, I assessed the prospects for a very uncertain future.

This is Concrete magazine

My company Wordmule has produced Concrete Quarterly on behalf of the Concrete Centre for several years now. For spring 2015, they also wanted a completely new 24-page magazine to tie in with the Ecobuild event, bringing together all of the sustainability themes from their three-day seminar programme – and planned, written and designed in six weeks flat. The result is This is Concrete.

This is Concrete 2015

Old habits die hard

There’s nothing brutal about the spring edition of Concrete Quarterly, which my company Wordmule produces for the Concrete Centre. Concrete is at its cosiest in a south London family home, its most sensitive on a heritage restoration in King’s Cross, and its most finely detailed in a concert hall in the Norwegian Arctic, which has 674 unique facade panels of sparkling white concrete.

Nothing brutal, that is, until you get to Lasting Impression on page 19, when architect Simon Allford of AHMM chooses his all-time favourite concrete structures: Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction and disused World War II pillboxes.

The secret profession

With a fast-growing membership around the world, the RICS surveying qualification could be considered one of the UK’s most successful education exports. Ten years ago, just 15% of members and candidates were based outside the UK – today, more than a third can be found across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, India and the Americas. But what isn’t changing nearly fast enough is the gender balance of the RICS. Globally, only 16% of members are female and the figure is even lower in the UK, leaving the profession hardly representative of its client base or the populations it serves. In this article for Modus, the RICS magazine, I reported on the institution’s drive to recruit from a broader cross-section of society, making careers in surveying more appealing to school kids and graduates alike – and, crucially, making them aware that surveying exists in the first place.

“We can’t yet say that using five curved shapes and two angular ones gives you this level of productivity, but I like to think we’ll be there in five years”

To the uninitiated, “health, wellbeing and productivity” might sound like an alternate title for the “mind, body, spirit” section of Waterstones. Don’t be fooled: it’s an emphatically evidence-based discipline, with a watertight business case that makes low-energy construction look practically New Age in comparison. There’s a growing body of evidence to show that buildings have a far more subtle impact on their occupants than previously thought – hospital patients with views of nature heal more quickly, office workers with a window seat sleep an average of 46 minutes longer per night and doubling the supply of outdoor air to an office reduces short-term sick leave by 35%.

Companies spend far more on salaries than anything else, so it’s easy to see why some of the property sector’s most influential clients seized have thrown their weight behind a landmark report from the World Green Building Council announcing wellbeing as the next big thing in sustainable building.  Wellbeing is a much more attractive message than the abstinence typically preached by the green movement, and unlike climate change, it’s something that individual organisations can actually do something about. In this feature for Building, I investigated how the wellbeing movement could affect the way buildings are designed and valued, and how exactly you can measure such a nebulous concept in the first place.

Just make sure you put the lid down first

When it comes to sustainable building, the march of progress is less a straight line than a meandering path with many forks, frequent hairpins and quite a few dead ends. The result is that 2015’s product landscape is an unlikely combination of the very new and the very old. High-tech solutions such as LED lighting and 3D scanning will reduce the energy use of buildings, whereas low-tech materials such as clay and wood are set to enjoy a renaissance as people search for natural, renewable materials with low embodied carbon. In this article for Construction Manager’s Agenda section, I reviewed sustainable building trends and picked out 10 products we’re likely to see more of this year. Look out for carbon-negative bricks, passive ventilation systems concealed in chimney stacks, clay boards with embedded phase-change materials and high-pressure toilets that only use 1.5L of water for each flush.

Travelling light

Fancy expanding beyond your home market? No problem. Just ask your research department to prepare a comprehensive report on the market and possible acquisition targets, get finance, legal and compliance to investigate local regulations and the money side, and send someone from business development out on a three-month scouting mission to build contacts in the region – your admin support can organise visas and make travel arrangements. But hang on – what if your company doesn’t have a research department, a business development function or large teams of support services, or indeed the cash to make foreign acquisitions? What might be a major undertaking for a large firm can sound impossibly daunting to a smaller one. But there are compelling reasons to take the plunge anyway: UK Trade & Investment says that 90% of the firms it works with fall into the SME category and that, on average, they go on to win £100,000 of new sales within 18 months. In this article for Modus, the magazine of the RICS, I spoke to small surveying practices that have managed to successfully expand abroad and found out how they did it.