Building a team for the future

November 29, 1996

A recent report from the Construction Industry Board has recommended the setting-up of a common foundation course for building industry students, in response to damning criticism of the United Kingdom's construction industry and the education of construction workers.

The report, aimed at the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the professions, prefers the educational model of the medical profession, in which a common first degree leads to postgraduate specialisation.

The need for a common core of knowledge and skill in the construction industry is prefigured in Sir Michael Latham's report Constructing the Team. It found that UK construction costs are 30 per cent higher than those of our international competitors.

This is because of out-of-date practices, the adversarial nature of construction and, most damning for academics, the sense that the different courses developed by the construction professions tend to reinforce barriers rather than encourage teamwork.

The CIB report describes much of the education provided to architects, surveyors, structural engineers and town planners as "nostalgic, inappropriate and old-fashioned".

It addresses dual professional qualifications, equal opportunities in training and the image of the construction industry, and suggests a common core of knowledge and a shared bedrock of skill will lead to more cooperation.

The proposals also go some way towards linking the learning of those who "design" with that of those who "construct". This divide, which exists in the structure of the construction professions, is also at the centre of their education.

The Latham report is the single most important critique of the industry over the past decade. It identifies problems and redefines the market skills required of contractors and designers.

The Royal Institute of British Architects has agreed in principle to join with seven other chartered bodies to work towards a common set of learning outcomes for the first degree. More standardised knowledge and skill levels in courses and universities would allow students to move freely between degree programmes.

But the idea of a common foundation with masters-level specialisation in surveying, structural engineering or architecture depends on shared values. A typical architecture first degree has about 50 per cent project work in the design field while in surveying and engineering the level is nearer 30 per cent.

Architecture students learn through design, it is the model around which their knowledge of construction, art and society is based. The typical architecture student spends a whole semester (or even an entire year) on a single design project: this sense of deep learning through project work contrasts with the pattern of short, shallower projects in other courses.

George Henderson, RIBA vice-president for education, welcomes the CIB initiative but wants more emphasis on design, not just to protect architectural education but because other members of the construction team need to recognise its value as well.

Contractors and suppliers do need to be more involved in the design process: many big projects, such as Heathrow's proposed Terminal Five, are designed from a kit of parts developed in collaboration between architect, project manager, supplier and contractor. The pattern here, adopted to save the British Airport Authority and expected 30 per cent over normal contracting costs, is beginning to influence education.

Shared learning outcomes at first-degree level provide a basis for an accreditation scheme across the construction and design professions. Courses in the future will not only be endorsed by the RIBA or the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors but also by the Construction Industry Council.

This will have many potential benefits for courses which have traditionally been professionally isolated or too inward-looking. If the pattern is adopted, architecture, surveying, building sciences, engineering and town planning courses will begin to coalesce into built environment departments where a large measure of interdisciplinary teaching and project work takes place.

Only a third of architecture students go on to practise as architects: the CIB proposals may well provide better opportunities for those who move into other fields. Certainly as those in the construction industry learn how to cooperate, it will be better placed to evolve strategies for sustainable development. The tackling of environmental and energy issues, more than any other, requires a shared ethos and body of knowledge which only an educationally integrated industry can deliver.

A common core of knowledge and skill also provides a basis for common standards of lifelong learning. As the industry changes so will practitioners need to refresh their skills. A common foundation will create the momentum for continuing professional development.

The proposed changes are profound and will no doubt be resisted by conservative elements as eroding the centrality of the professions. Implicit in the concept of teamwork is a breaking-down of class and gender bias. It is long overdue both in education and on the building site.

Brian Edwards is professor of architecture, University of Huddersfield.

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