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BSRIA Briefing 2011 reviewNovember 2011

Let's face it, we're in a recession. A lot of us in the construction industry are worried about whether the papers' predictions of economic misery are really true, and whether UK companies will survive the coming year or two. These local, short-term concerns are valid, but the focus of this year's BSRIA Briefing was on the long term and the global.

Sustainability is a serious issue for the construction industry. According to Tristram Carfrae, director and fellow of Arup, "It's pretty obvious that we're running out of resources of all kinds". Keith Clarke, director of sustainability for Atkins, expanded on this: "Do we have social cohesion, enough fairness to avoid being taken over by people who don't have things?"

The chairman for the day was Jeremy Watson, also an Arup director and chief scientific adviser to the Department for Communities and Local Government. On the topic of sustainability, he pointed out that "The UK's impact is only 2% of the worldwide greenhouse gas emissions… but we have to show the way, and we have huge market opportunities through doing that". Keith Clarke told us that UK consultants are delivering world-class services in middle-eastern countries like Bahrain and UAE. Even countries like Qatar, the worst per-capita carbon emitter in the world, are starting to talk about reducing emissions.

“We may be absolutely astonished by the degree to which we can build in… economic efficiency and environmental efficiency, ways that at the moment we’re only just beginning to perceive or to grasp. These are opportunities surely which reside very much in this room with these people and fortunately very much in our country, in Britain” – Michael Portillo

The discussion wasn't just about the trouble we're in. Real solutions were put forward, particularly in the application of IT to the building industry. Tristram Carfrae introduced the concept of virtual design - something the aerospace industry has been doing for years: "We used to build buildings as physical prototypes but now we can build virtual prototypes. We're beginning to do so, it's quite slow but we can get there. Our buildings will be far more efficient, we can be far less conservative, we can work out how to build them before we get there". Paul Fletcher, co-founder of Through Architecture, informed the audience about Building Information Modelling (BIM), "What [BIM] really provides is, during the process… the opportunity to have information driven design and construction rather than how we currently do it. And probably even more significant, that we have informed use, and building performance evaluation that is happening automatically as part of the building having been created".

Finally, there was some discussion about the role of legislation in improving the way we work, and the buildings we build. Jeremy Watson started out by telling us "There's a debate about how much regulation is useful". In a question from the floor, Rod Hickmott of Maincor asked whether the political will exists to bring in the legislation to develop growth in areas such as renewables. He cited the example of condensing boilers - the boiler industry changed within a year once the legislation was in place to make condensing boilers virtually compulsory. Keith Clarke's response was that the private sector only pushes for legislation when it gives them certainty of market. "As an industry, we are shameful… anti-legislation when anyone ever does it, unless it's legislating stuff you already know how to do. And that is not innovation, it's backwards protectionism". Donald Daw, director of Mitsubishi, was more positive about the role industry can play: "The government's starting to nudge us with legislation, but we don't have to wait for it, we can go first".

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