The Bartlett


Transcript: How do you dissolve an industry fairly?

Instead of talking about building the future, this episode asks us to think about breaking things down.


industry, bartlett, building, people, construction, world, construction industry, government, heat pumps, build, buildings, space, environment, built, uk, podcast, sustainable, skills, dissolve, demolished


Professor Jaqui Glass, Christoph Lindner, Dr Rokia Raslan

Christoph Lindner  00:07

Hello, and welcome to Building Better, a podcast about the human spaces and urban landscapes that we build worldwide in order to ask the question, "how can we build better?"

Christoph Lindner  00:18

My name is Christoph Lindner, and as well as being your host for this podcast, I am the Dean here at UCL's Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. In each episode, I sit down with other members of this community to explore new ideas on some of the world's most important challenges, bringing together multidisciplinary perspectives and radical thinking from some of our world-leading experts. And this is the final episode in our first series. And over the past six months, I've spoken to researchers from all across the Bartlett about many interesting things. I've learned that I live in a city that is fast, but also slow and that setting my own speed is a privilege. I've learned that this city is filled with spaces that are more than they seem, and some are safe spaces, others are not and you can't always tell if a space is private, especially if it's open to the public. If you walk through London, like many of our researchers do, you can learn a lot about the history of the city, to its streets and buildings and I've even learned that if you listen very carefully, the trees talk.

Christoph Lindner  01:36

For this episode, we're going to be continuing our conversation on climate change. But instead of talking about building the future, we're going to be thinking about breaking things down. I want to explore the unintended consequences of switching to more sustainable building practices and I want to find out how we can best mitigate them by asking, "how do you dissolve an industry fairly?" 

Christoph Lindner  02:03

To help me do that I have two guests with us today and let me introduce them. I'm joined by Professor Jacqui Glass, who is Chair in Construction Management in the newly renamed Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction. And she's also Vice Dean for Research here at the Bartlett. Jacqui has published over 150 papers on manufacturing and construction, covering everything from project procurement to sustainability and industry transformation. And through this research, she has worked with industry partners operating on a global scale, as well as with consultancies and Research Councils. 

Christoph Lindner  02:42

I'm also joined by Dr. Rokia Raslan. Rakia is Associate Professor in the Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources and Vice Dean of Innovation and Enterprise here at the Bartlett. Rokia trained as an architect and her research now uses computational modeling and analysis to understand how to build better buildings, from design innovation to the repurposing of existing builds, to enforcement of best practice through policy and legislation. 

Christoph Lindner  03:16

So I think it's fair to say that we are in the process of transitioning to a more sustainable world and there have been commitments to reducing carbon to switching to greener energy sources to trying to be more sustainable. And the question that I have for you is looking ahead, thinking big, what is the world going to look like in 50 or 100 years' time? Jacqui?

Professor Jaqui Glass  03:44

You know, in my view, the world won't look too different. But the way we will use our built environment, the way we will inhabit it and the way we will actually construct our built environment, and I mean construct in the broadest sense of the word, because I think we'll be doing things differently. I hope we'll be doing things differently as well, because there are inequities, there are inefficiencies, there are corrupt behaviors in our industry today and how we put together our built environment. And there's a number of things I'd like to pick up on around the social responsibility that we have actually, as an industry, as a built environment sector to do things differently.

Christoph Lindner  04:25

So Jacqui, you're saying that the world in say 50 years' time won't look vastly different. In other words, we would recognize it as our world, but behind the scenes, the way that that world operates, and the values that it pursues, that's where the change would happen?

Professor Jaqui Glass  04:43

Yes, I am. And I'm seeing change on that right now. It is very interesting in the UK, that the Construction Sector, the kind of construction firms and people that I work with on a regular basis, have got, for example, carbon reduction far more at the front of their minds than they've ever done before. And that's changing things because it's changing the way we put buildings together. It's also changing the way that we form policy around construction and infrastructure as well. And that's very encouraging. 

Christoph Lindner  05:16

So Rokia, what are your thoughts on what the world will look like in 50 to 100 years?

Dr Rokia Raslan  05:22

I think it will be very familiar. But I think it will be a little warmer, a little more crowded, and if we're not careful, quite a bit more polluted than we're used to. And that's not as a result of what is going on then but as a legacy of what we've been doing now.

Christoph Lindner  05:37

So I think it's really interesting that both of you have pulled back from the large visions that are often circulated when we talk about the future. So I'm thinking of things that come out of, say, the tech industry where you know, everything is different, everything's disrupted, and it's all monorails and floating skateboards, and holograms and all the rest of it. But what you're actually saying is that we have a built environment that will last, that has legacy, that has a materiality, and it will be very much with us. And it's how do we want what we've already built, what we've already got to mature, overcoming decades? Rokia, I think you phrased it quite gently, a bit more crowded, a bit more polluted... are you being diplomatic there? Or do you think actually, that some of the work that's being done geopolitically around the world to create more sustainable ways of living will actually slow down the current rate of say, you know, pollution?

Dr Rokia Raslan  06:37

I think there is now a consensus-building as to the actions that different countries and individuals and communities have to take on that front, I think there's a recognition that our actions or a recognition that's starting to develop, that our actions do impact us. And maybe I'm being optimistic, but I've been part of a few seminars in the last few days, and it looks like that consensus is building. And the actions that are going to be taken will slow down the rapid rate of pollution that has built up over the last few decades. So I'm being fairly optimistic, I think, but I do prefer to be?

Christoph Lindner  07:17

Is it fair to say that the construction industry has accepted the risks and challenges that climate change poses? Or is that still something that the industry is working on understanding and accepting?

Dr Rokia Raslan  07:33

I think they are still working on understanding it. There's a general acceptance, the acceptance might be driven by a number of factors. Maybe it's not primarily concern for the environment, but something that is connected to their business sustainability, I think that they know that they have to change things for their own survival as well.

Christoph Lindner  07:53

So Jacqui, if we look at this from a... or through a global lens, can we talk about a construction industry in the singular, does that work? Or do we need to be thinking about industries in the plural?

Professor Jaqui Glass 08:05

We could talk about that concept for a long time, Christoph, it's, you know, the idea of a singular construction industry, I have to say, it's a phrase of convenience for many of us. But actually, it's a highly complex and differently configured industry, when we look around the world. One of the really key things that I think is going to be clearer as we move through the next decade is the difference between what I would call "big industry" and "local industry", because if we think of big industry, we've to think about, you know, the major infrastructure projects. If you want public green transport, we need actually big firms and skilled experts really to deliver that. And those are operations at scale. But we, what we also need, as colleagues would explain in the School of Architecture, for example, the democratization of construction. And this is actually looking at how people at a local level, how individuals can be creating their built environment without recourse if you'd like to big industry. And I've got a great deal of sympathy for that view, because actually, what we've seen over many years, is the deskilling of construction trades people. And actually, I'd like to see trades and I'd like to see artisan craft really coming back into construction. And that's not a retrograde step at all for me, because this is about operating appropriately at scales using the resources we need at scales. And you know, for many people, sustainable construction means not building at all. It just means using what we already have. I think that we can do some of that for sure. But my concern is that you know, the big green infrastructure projects we need around the world to move people around and to create green energy, those are scale major and mega projects. So we can't really conflate the two I'd like to see some separation there.

Christoph Lindner  09:56

I'm really glad you brought up the idea of maybe we shouldn't build at all. I've heard that argument and I think you've countered it by, you know, sharing some examples of where it just would actually be detrimental potentially not to build. So maybe it's a question of building mindfully or building for the right reasons in the right places in the right ways. How do we do that? How does an industry identify when and where it's good to build, responsible to build and doing it in a way that empowers communities and supports the values of stainability, fairness, all those kinds of things?

Professor Jaqui Glass 10:35

Yeah, absolutely. And this is, this is a debate that's played out very often, you know, almost between the contractor and the architect, if you like, the architect, as the protector of the client, as the protector of society, and the contractor, you know, portrayed as, as the bad guy coming in and disrupting things. For me, that just doesn't work as a, as a story, as a narrative. What's really happening now, and I'm really hoping people in the industry, in the sector will make use of this, is we certainly in the UK, we have two things available to us right now. One is called the Construction Playbook, which sets out exactly the sort of vision you're talking about Christoph, from the Government perspective, in terms of how public sector projects should be procured and delivered. And exactly these concepts of value and social value are embedded in the Construction Playbook. But more than that, as part of the Transforming Construction Program, which I'm involved with at national level, one of the things that is coming out soon and in full is something called the Value Toolkit. And this is exactly the sort of thing that we need in the industry to help that to happen. Because not everybody finds it easy to articulate what they mean by value and social value. But also, we have this... honestly, we have this real difficulty in managing that, and organizing projects in response to that. And for some, of course, we have difficulty in putting a monetary value to it. So we need to break down those arguments. So I'm really excited about the prospect of the value toolkit as a way, as an action structure in a way, to make this conversation happen. And to enable everybody to access that that conversation and understand what that looks like. This is innovative stuff, actually, I'm really pleased about it.

Christoph Lindner  12:20

So Rokia, we started this conversation with the question, how do we dissolve an industry fairly? And it sounds already like we need to rethink that question more in terms of how do we reinvent industries and allow them or help them to adapt to a changing world? You've already said you have a fairly optimistic view about the future, are we going to see any particular skills or jobs disappear in the coming decades in the world of construction and the built environment? And so for instance, and I hesitate to say this, coming from the Bartlett, but in 50 years time, will we have Architects? Will we have Structural Engineers? Will AI be doing all of this for us? What jobs do you think are safe and sustainable and able to adapt to transformation? And are there areas under threat?

Dr Rokia Raslan 13:20

Well, that's a, that's a very interesting question. A couple of years ago, I was at a Ford Foresight event that aimed to look at what jobs would be around in the next 100 years, and I'm happy to report that architects looked like they were slightly safer than most jobs. So, from my perspective, very happy with that. I think the construction industry in terms of the jobs that are available there won't be losing as many jobs as people thought would happen. I do however, think that it will have to go through a massive reskilling approach. In the UK, we seem to be a lot better at building than we are at adapting or reusing the stock that we have. With that said, if you look at a building, we really have to understand the drivers why people want to build more. The typical house here in the UK has a lifespan of about 70 to 80 years. So really, the question is why are we building more houses? Is it to accommodate more people? Is it to accommodate different lifestyles? Or is it to improve the quality of the housing that we do have? So one of the things I think is important is not looking at construction, from the sense that it involves building... just building new buildings, but also adapting and improving what we have. And in the UK, there is a current shortage in skills in terms of adapting buildings and learning how to use them in better ways. So I think instead of the jobs being lost, I think they will be shifted over more from constructing new build to adapting what we already have. 

Christoph Lindner  14:52

So that raises two questions for me - you mentioned the typical lifespan of a house in the UK being 70 to 80 years, is that done intentionally? And is that a good amount of time? So in other words, depending on your perspective, that could be too long. Maybe we need houses that last 20, 30 years and then they kind of, you know, dissolve and disappear in some sort of green way and make space for another structure or maybe we need to be thinking about houses that can last 3, 4, or 500 years so they don't have to keep rebuilding over and over again. So what are your thoughts on the lifespan of a building?

Dr Rokia Raslan 15:27

Well, I think the 70 to 80 years is mostly to do with the fact that they are sometimes demolished when they don't need to be. So that's sort of the average that they've calculated, they of course, can last much longer and we're in a society where all the houses seem to be quite coveted. So I think they already have the potential to last a lot longer than that, from a material perspective and degradation perspective, they can last much longer than 70 to 80 years. It's the quality I think that drives people to demolish them, or the lack of space or the land value, so that the drive is there to build new houses comes from those three more than the actual building, not doing what it's supposed to do. In terms of building houses that dissolve within the next 30 years... I mean, it's an interesting concept, I would like to see what the mortgage situation would be like for houses of that nature [laughs]

Christoph Lindner  16:15

You have to pay off your mortgage before it dissolves!

Dr Rokia Raslan 16:19

Exactly! Even though that's a very interesting idea that the whole financial system that would need to be in place to support that would be an interesting one. I do, however, believe that what we need to do is, regardless of if we build new, or if we adapt what we already have, is look at the lifecycle of the building, in addition to the lifespan. What is the impact of keeping it versus demolishing it versus rebuilding it? We've done a few studies, and the question is keeping it is always better than for the environment than demolishing and rebuilding.

Christoph Lindner  16:51

So that's an important statement, and yet what we see all around us, particularly in a city like London, where land value is very high and rents very high, we're seeing all the time, perfectly viable buildings being demolished. Why are we doing that? Jacqui, what's driving this?

Professor Jaqui Glass 17:10

You know, Christoph, one of the things when we talk about property, we can't ignore land values, we have an enormous community across the world of people who study buildings from an environmental perspective. And of course, naturally, they will prioritize and privilege carbon, materials, waste, resources. So the way that an environmentalist if you like, looks at a building is the resource, the asset that is there in front of them and attempt to, you know, put a carbon value on it or even a monetary value on that building. But the land is a different story, it would be like, well, let's be controversial here, why not? Why can't we renationalise land? Because if you take the land value out of this equation, we then are genuinely looking at the building in itself as an asset. And then, you asked earlier about what skills and professions might appear. that changes the landscape entirely for our colleagues in the surveying professions, because they will need to learn to value a building for what it is rather than the land on which it sits. Now I appreciate that's quite controversial, but actually, that's the sort of shift in thinking that we need when we are talking about buildings as a resource. Most buildings, most new houses, are extremely cheap to build. The money, the value is in the land. So change the land value system, and then we have a very different prospect.

Christoph Lindner  18:37

So you heard that here, first, on the Bartlett Podcast, we're calling for re-nationalising land in the UK. And I'm sure that's an idea that won't cause controversy. 

Christoph Lindner  18:50

You're listening to Building Better the Bartlett podcast, a podcast brought to you by The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. If there's a question about life and research at the Bartlett you would like us to answer e-mail us at bartlett.comms@ucl.ac.uk or you can tweet us @Bartlett,UCL. 

Christoph Lindner  19:21

So Rokia, Jacqui's shared a very provocative idea that could completely reinvent the whole way that we approach building construction, and within that, even potentially creating all kinds of new jobs and skills, and coming back to the question of dissolving or reinventing an industry fairly. I'm wondering, are we set up in the UK to support such a reskilling of labor? So, if industries are changing, if jobs are changing, who's training people? And do we have things in place to support or even accelerate that retraining?

Dr Rokia Raslan 20:08

We currently don't. There is a skill shortage in the retrofit sector. We are currently in a position where the government and other organizations are pushing massive retrofit programs and we simply don't have enough people who have the skill set required to deliver that and that's here and now. So, in the future, to deliver what we need in the future, that skills gap needs to be addressed. And that will only happen by a massive investment in reskilling programs. I read somewhere that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve expertise at something, so we're talking about massive investment in terms of time and resource, and also supporting these people who are being reskilled going forward. But the payoff I think is potentially great. There is a current drive now to push, for example, heat pumps, even though it's not a construction activity, per se, it is a feeder skill for the construction industry and the retrofit industry. And they recently, they surveyed people who had heat pumps installed. And they found that the majority of people had them installed by people who are not certified or skilled in that area. And heat pumps are being brought in to replace boilers going forward. That's what the government wants. But they simply have not thought about how many people they need to deliver that ambition. And this is just a small example.

Christoph Lindner  21:31

So I love that you reference heat pumps, because as it happens, that was the subject of our previous podcast episode. And one of the things that I learned in that episode was that there is a really urgent need for government to invest in a serious long term way in the shift to renewable energy, but also everything that comes with that, such as heat pumps, and the specialists who are needed to install them. If you put that, just that investment need alongside the investment need that you've outlined for reskilling, retraining people, is it pessimistic to say that this looks daunting? That this looks almost impossible for a government to get behind and fund all of these needs? So if we think about what it takes to seriously address climate change, and the government invested-investment needed, across so many different sectors and industries to actually shift in a real way towards more sustainable living, sustainable practices, do we have the political will there? Or do we need to grow the political will? Jacqui, what do you think about engaging with government and influencing government?

Professor Jaqui Glass  22:43

It may be that listeners to the podcast don't realize that the construction sector actually has a very unfortunate track record, with Government, not of its own doing. I think we hold the record for the most ministers with the shortest amount of time in post. So you know, construction doesn't have a very good rep in policymaking, but actually, there are some fantastic, you know, people working in that space, it's just that we don't have the ministerial sort of kudos, if you like. One of the things that's going on, I'm involved with the Construction Leadership Council, which is, if you like, the sort of the senior industry leadership body that government looks to, to do things, and to change things. And Construction Leadership Council has a new program called Construct Zero, which is all around carbon and the construction sector response. And actually, within that one of the things we're looking at, picking up on Rokia's point, we're looking at specifically the skills and the training programs that really need to happen, and how they're going to be resourced and who's going to support them, etc. Now, one of the things that, you know, we talk about actually is how change can be resourced, and who should be resourcing it. And so I think there is a... potentially a joint program of activity here. And one of the things that I would also suggest is a key component of this is that we have certainly in the UK, and I know that in other countries they have similar systems also, is the R&D tax credit scheme that's open to the vast majority of businesses - to be effectively reinvesting in R&D and innovation in their own businesses as part of their tax bill. It comes off the tax bill. And firms in construction, you know, Rokia, they're just not using that enough. They're using it for small projects, they're not taking that transformational step, and that money is available to them, effectively. There's a huge missed opportunity in that existing scheme around tax, you know, and that's a couple of things I think I would put into this sort of formula, Christoph, so I don't think it is daunting. We need some investment, absolutely, but actually, if we start to look at what we already have available to us, and we start to maybe press organizations like the Construction Leadership Council, the Construction Industry Training Board, we need to press these organizations to actually work around a common goal. I think we can get there.

Christoph Lindner  25:05

Well, good to know that there is momentum and opportunity and Rokia, I'm wondering what you think on the question of government. How do you think that educational spaces like the Bartlett, for instance, can contribute to these kinds of dialogues? So how do we, as educators, play a role in shaping policy, advocating for just transformations in, say, the construction industry and also for the prosperity of the workforce, who's going to be reskilled as part of that transformation?

Dr Rokia Raslan  25:43

I think being there at the table, when those conversations start to happen is the single most important thing we can be doing. There is currently some joint work being done in this area. But it's not enough. It's almost always a byproduct or an afterthought of a lot of the conversations that are happening, where different policymakers from from government say, "Oh, well, we've discussed this, oh, let's get UCL or whatever university around the table to get their opinion". And that's sometimes an afterthought after the decisions have been made. And so I think putting ourselves forward in the policy space, making our voices heard in the policy space is very important. So we're right there at the very beginning. I mean, this country's universities are a massive resource that is very, very underused I think on the policy front.

Christoph Lindner  26:39

Very much agree. And now that we're talking a bit about higher education, let's talk a little bit about students, I keep hearing that many of our students are being trained for jobs that don't yet exist, how do we know that we're teaching the right skills now, and that we're preparing them to be adaptable for a future that's still coming into focus?

Professor Jaqui Glass  27:03

So, within the built environment, and let's think about the built environment programs, you know, the undergraduate programs, the postgraduate programs, you know, let's think about them all, as a collective here, whether it's Architecture, Surveying Engineering. The vast majority of them are programs, which have been curated over a number of years, but importantly, are responding to a framework curriculum, which is determined and has oversight by a professional body. And the professional body has links to policymaking, as do the academics. So, in some respects, we have an operable ecosystem, in how we create and manage our courses. I don't think it's quite as agile as it could be, I don't think it's quite as transformational as it could be. And I certainly don't think the professional bodies are as joined up in their conversations with us as educators as they could be. But that is the structure that we have available to us. So that is the structure that we need to make use of and that needs to communicate to new applicants, to universities and programs, what they're joining that course could lead to. And in my many years in education in various institutions, the wonderful thing about the built environment programs is actually they don't close you down to one definite career destination, people join architecture degrees and do all sorts of things, people join surveying degrees, and do all sorts of things, likewise civil engineering. It's a wonderful set of programs, the vast majority of things, you know, within those programs, the vast majority of modules, encourage challenging thought, they encourage breadth of thinking, collaborative thinking. So we've got from, from my perspective, it's about having that understanding that communication at the first point of contact, when somebody is thinking about joining a university program, we have a responsibility to them to make it clear what they will be getting.

Christoph Lindner  29:07

I started this conversation by asking you what the world would look like in 50 to 100 years. Let's end it by asking you a related question, which is, if there's one thing that you think needs to change now to build a better future, what would that be?

Dr Rokia Raslan  29:25

I think the one thing that needs to change is we need to stop building for now, we need to build for the future that we want. And that includes looking at a whole host of drivers and targets and, and visions of the future. And implementing them now. Because like I said, our buildings will outlast a lot of our projections. So we need to build them with that in mind. 

Christoph Lindner  29:50

And Jacqui?

Professor Jaqui Glass  29:51

Yes, and building on that point, let's stop building for now, but let's also stop recruiting for now. So let us see people in the industry who are recruiting not be recruiting in their own likeness. We need to be recruiting the managers and the leaders, the designers of the future, and they may and probably will look very different. And that brings us to a point about equality, diversity and inclusion. I would like to see a much fairer industry and a more representative and inclusive industry to build those buildings in the future.

Christoph Lindner  30:25

Thank you, Jacqui. Thank you Rokia. 

Christoph Lindner  30:30

You've been listening to Building Better the Bartlett Podcast. This episode was presented by myself Christoph Lindner, produced by UCL with support from the Bartlett Communications team and edited by Cerys Bradley. 

Christoph Lindner  30:44

It featured music from Blue Dot Sessions with additional sounds recorded by Paul Bavister. 

Christoph Lindner  30:50

I was joined today by Professor Jacqui Glass and Dr. Rokia Raslan. 

Christoph Lindner  30:56

If you would like to hear more of these podcasts, subscribe wherever you download your podcasts or visit ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/buildingbetter, or you can follow us @BartlettUCL. This podcast is brought to you by The Bartlett, UCL's Global Faculty of the Built Environment and UCL Minds, bringing together UCL knowledge, insights and expertise through events, digital content and activities that are open to everyone. 

We'll be back for a new season in the autumn so watch this space.

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