Construction is a fantastic industry but needs to be bolder and braver to change society for the common good, according to the commercial director of the UK's new hospital programme, Emma-Jane Houghton. Rob O’Connor reports.
Construction is a fantastic industry to join and be part of but it needs to be bolder and braver to grasp the opportunities to change society for the common good, according to Emma-Jane Houghton, the commercial director of the UK’s new hospital programme.
Speaking exclusively with Infrastructure Intelligence editor Andy Walker on Friday 11 June, the latest of our In the Spotlight interviews organised in association with events and communications strategic partner BECG, Houghton struck home on a number of hot topics currently facing the industry.
Being much more active about promoting the achievements of the industry should go alongside future industry collaboration, embracing social value, modern methods of construction and developing sensible contract models with sustainable profit margins were all highlighted by Houghton in another typically lively Friday morning online event.
Houghton’s passion for championing a different commercial response for 21st century built environment investment shone through during the hour-long interview. At a time when there is much talk in the construction industry about change and doing things differently, hers is a confident and persuasive voice for the benefits of rethinking procurement and the way the industry works.
Passionate about engaging stakeholders and listening to what they have to say, Houghton knows that collaboration works and that it is the only way for construction to meet its delivery challenges and achieve its broader socio-economic objectives.
Talking about her pioneering approach to enable supply chains of the future and showing that if the industry thinks differently and acts boldly and bravely then great things can happen, Houghton said: “I am determined to champion that there is a different commercial environment to major built environment investment. That is where most of my energy goes. Not just thinking differently for the sake of it. We can do things in a much smarter and modern way that creates lasting and sustainable legacy for the sector – and we need to start now!”
Houghton, a music graduate who confessed that she initially ‘fell into’ construction, is clearly passionate that the industry should be seen and promoted as a great career choice for a diverse range of people from across society. “I met people who were super generous with their time - engineers, planners, architects, you name it - and I found and realised that this is a great career,” she said.
“It’s that passion which drives the industry and I’ve seen that passion and generosity wherever I’ve worked. No other sector comes close with the levels of generosity of time and knowledge it gives to new recruits, and there’s no other industry where people are lucky enough to be in the mix of such a range of skills. It’s a great industry to join and be part of but, looking ahead, while we have great skills, we also have an opportunity to do much better – a great chance to be more sustainable,” Houghton said.
Asked why the industry needs a different approach to commercial strategy and procurement, Houghton said: “The current set up is not sustainable. Current profit margins of around 3% are too low – pipelines and sensible contracting models with sustainable profit margins will help drive innovation. Contracts need to reflect the complexity and the risk profile of what we’re buying. Sustainable contracts need to be in place.”
And Houghton had a clear message for those who say all this is impossible and that the industry can’t change. “That’s just not right. We’ve obviously had reports going back decades calling for change – but there is no shortage of suppliers in today’s industry who are desperate for change,” she said.
Highlighting collaboration and redefining best value as key to making change happen, she added: “My view is that proper collaboration is the coming together of various skills sets for the common good. People working together for the common good.
“The industry very much has a collective responsibility to change and work together. We all recognise that a 3% profit margin is not sustainable for future research and development. We’ve got to differentiate between lowest cost procurement and value based procurement. Lowest cost does not always mean been best value for money.”
Embedding social value should also be a vital part of future procurement, said Houghton. “We must put social value at heart of policy, driving local GVA and creating local jobs in the communities we serve. Social value is vital, not just built assets, but for local communities across the UK.”
Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) and off-site manufacture have also been heavily touted as solutions to help ‘build back better’ in the post-Covid recovery, a sector that Houghton said needed bolder support and investment. “It’s a hot topic for us. MMC is at the heart of what we do and is vital if we’re going to achieve what we want,” said Houghton.
“We’re at a really exciting place – now it’s about being brave enough to make giant leaps forward, especially with digital design that makes this possible. We need to be brave enough to invest in MMC properly, and being brave means going beyond what’s gone before – being individually and collectively brave with investment,” she said.
Infrastructure Intelligence editor Andy Walker said: “We often hear a lot about change and doing things differently in our industry but it was a real pleasure to speak to someone like Emma-Jane who not only wants to see change and believes in it, she clearly has the determination to make it happen and will work with the construction supply chain to ensure that they get that message too. We need more Emma-Janes in our industry!”
The Infrastructure Intelligence LIVE series of events is organised in association with our Events and Communications Strategic Partner, BECG.