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Recovery? Let’s build back differently

14 September 2020: ‘Building back better’ is all very noble but delivering ’better’ is hard to imagine. Ceri Humphrey is Finance Director at engineering and construction firm VolkerFitzpatrick and has very clear ideas what this could mean.

Construction has proved to be a fascinating sector for ICAEW member Ceri Humphrey. She is an EY-trained chartered accountant, with a background in financial services and management consultancy, whose career morphed out of professional practice and into an in-house business role, with a position at Anglian Water.

When Anglian Water acquired Morrison Construction, Humphrey’s career took a new direction. “Construction is a very tangible industry,” she says. “I enjoyed watching things being built. It was fascinating.” Her role was to support the post-acquisition integration of Morrison Construction. She then joined Willmott Dixon in 2004.

Five years later, she was the Group Financial Controller of Dutch-owned company VolkerWessels UK, and then became Finance Director of its largest UK subsidiary, VolkerFitzpatrick, in 2013. As she transitioned into this role, Humphrey took part in ICAEW Academy’s F-TEN leadership programme.

Offsite ambitions

The VolkerWessels group develops, designs, builds, finances, manages and operates construction and engineering projects. It is proud that its 120 companies have all the know-how to turn an empty piece of land into a fully functioning city, and it places strong emphasis on safety, sustainability and integrity as key elements of a better quality of life. VolkerFitzpatrick, which has projects on its books such as HS2, RAF Lakenheath and Siemens wind turbine blade factory, has similar aspirations.

At a local level, these aspirations are perhaps most clearly demonstrated through its offsite housing initiative: the first site is being completed in Hertfordshire. “This is a housing solution developed in the Dutch part of our business that has been adapted for the UK market,” says Humphrey. “The structural elements of the houses are transported from the Netherlands, from our specialist in-house manufacturers and are being assembled at our Hoddesdon head office.”

Offsite construction is one of Hertfordshire LEP’s key interests. Manufacturers in this sector have been invited to set up an operation in the county’s Enterprise Zone in Hemel Hempstead, to build new homes and generate employment. Any offsite manufacturers and their supply chain locating in the Enterprise Zone by 31 March 2022 will benefit from business rate relief. Businesses will also benefit from opportunities to work with the Building Research Establishment, also based in Hertfordshire, which leads the national agenda for offsite construction.

Hertfordshire’s new homes target is more than 100,000 homes to be built by 2036 – a tall order. Offsite construction is one way of delivering some of these homes, not just helping to meet targets but also doing so faster, with more efficient use of materials and with less waste, compared with traditional methods.

Further, points out Humphrey, the emerging offsite construction sector in Hertfordshire is stimulating a sub-sector of sustainable construction technologies. “The Government is determined to get projects accelerated,” she says. “This is a real opportunity.”

Time for construction to shine

The construction sector has been under pressure in recent years for all sorts of reasons, and the relatively low levels of productivity and innovation being demonstrated by this sector do it no favours. Only agriculture has shown itself to be less innovative, but that sector is edging forwards as opportunities and technologies reveal themselves.

Now it is time for construction to shine. “We are digitising building processes. While builders must be on the ground, what supports them to innovate are digital models,” she says. “The construction industry has moved from drawings to CAD to 3D, 4D and even 5D models. We can show every component in a model, so you can understand how to sequence, cost and maintain every element to provide lifecycle information.”

Constructing buildings is rapidly becoming more akin to building a car with automated processes, robotics and no room for error. Offsite construction is in the same league.

Need for speed

Returning to housing, Humphrey says that VolkerWessels’ offsite manufactured homes are watertight in a day. The UK has an urgent need for more housing and there is a need for speed. The total build of these houses takes just two weeks and she sees housing associations and the private rental sector as key markets.

The main structural components comprise pre-cast concrete – not, on the face of it, the greenest of materials, she concedes, although it does deliver on the durability front. However, VolkerWessels owns a building materials science research centre, the VolkerWessels Infra Competence Centre, which, amongst other things, is working towards alternatives to concrete.

We know there is a systemic shortage of housing in the UK – COVID did not have a role to play in that – but the pandemic has made us re-evaluate the way we live. Apart from the realisation that risks to health and wellbeing are a reality, and that the planet and its populations are intrinsically combined, we have had time during lockdown to look at our circumstances and evaluate our nesting habits.

For example, what are the benefits of a house versus an apartment, and is it better to live in the suburbs than the city? And let’s remember that where we live has to be affordable, high-quality, tech-enabled and durable.

Local economic growth

Humphrey’s latest challenge is joining the Hertfordshire LEP’s Board, having previously sat on the Borough of Broxbourne’s Economic Board. “I’ve become very interested in how local economic growth happens,” says Humphrey, “and I have an understanding of how infrastructure and housing projects can play a role in that.”

Importantly, the LEPs are positioned to deliver at the local level for the national benefit. By the same token, Humphrey is well placed to advise locally, nationally and internationally.