CIBSE’s new president reflects on industry issues

Donald Leeper
The new president of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers is Donald Leeper. He has worked for the engineering consultancy consultancy Zisman Bowyer & Partners for 39 years, 21 of them as senior partner. He was awarded an OBE in the Millennium Honours list for services to construction He has had a long association with BSRIA, both as a director and chairman; he became an honorary life member of BSRIA in 2003, one of only five ever awarded
In his long career in the building-services industry, the new president of CIBSE has seen many changes — not necessarily beneficial to the industry but nevertheless pointing the way to improvement.Donald Leeper, the new president of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers, has nearly 40 years’ experience in the construction industry. He brought that experience to bear in his presidential address when he discussed a wide range of issues. Some issues are ongoing, some are due to changes of attitude, perhaps misguided changes of attitude, in the past, and some are new or recent. The role of Government A key issue for Donald Leeper is the current lack of expertise within the largest player in the construction industry. Around 40% of the output of the construction industry is procured by that client, which, collectively, is central and local government. Little wonder that Donald Leeper says, ‘There is only one large player in construction.’ It is within the last 20 years that the Government relinquished its internal resources as an informed client by abolishing the Property Services Agency (PSA) and closing the Department of Health’s technical-expert centre at Euston Tower in London. By these actions, believes Donald Leeper, ‘Government largely abandoned its opportunities for internal informed technical guidance and feedback.’ The dilution of expertise continued, with the Government delegating procurement in the public sector to individual schools and hospital groups. ‘More and more projects were in effect procured by first-time clients.’ With the loss of technical expertise and having to satisfy a district auditor, many procurement bodies have used lowest price rather than any other criteria. The industry became adept at pricing low to win a contract and then attempting to recover lost margins by claims on the client and from within the supply-chain. These approaches are described by Mr Leeper as ‘not a policy to encourage mutual collaboration and support, nor enhance the industry’s collective reputation.’ Regulations and legislation did nothing to improve the situation. As CIBSE’s new president pointed out, ‘Even where a project turned in a first-class result, it was often clear that this would count for little next time. Under EC tendering directives, the next tender list would be open to all, including those who through lack of experience or conscious policy priced below sensible cost before again attempting recovery later.’ Those views and experiences prompt Donald Leeper to put forward a solution. ‘It is is my strong belief that if the Government is serious about improving the outcome of the construction industry, not least the carbon emissions of our buildings, it needs to become an expert client — perhaps by using the positive aspects of the PSA model.’ Unintended consequences As Donald Leeper looks back over his long working career, he believes he has lived through an example of the law of unintended consequences, where the effects of successive decisions of well intentioned people have cumulatively had the opposite effect to that desired. He refers to the adversarial attitudes that have become more widespread — to the point where ‘my work is my bond’ has become ‘at all costs watch your back’. He explains that in the 1960s designers routinely worked with manufacturers to improve design solutions and aid product development. ‘We undertook pre-tendering exercises with every bit as much integrity as the professional quantity surveyor.’ Such co-operation was gradually eroded by designers not being allowed to pre-tender and specify suppliers without adding ‘or equal and approved’. The next stage was only being allowed to write a generalised performance specification. Donald Leeper explained, ‘Responsible suppliers found themselves being asked to contribute to the overall project before being swept aside by those not paying for such development work — and apparently offering a lower price.’ ‘It is not much more than 15 years ago that we risked being sacked if we attempted to build a relationship with key suppliers and incorporate their products into the works. More recently, this has been totally reversed. As designers, we are exhorted to work closely with key suppliers, but too often these suppliers are still underbid later when orders are finally placed.’ Towards collaboration and competition It was some 10 years ago that Sir Michael published his interim report ‘Trust and money’. ‘A decade on,’ says Mr Leeper, ‘These two issues still bedevil much of our industry.’ He is concerned that real partnering has not achieved anything like the potential benefits. ‘If it has, surely market competition would have compelled others to follow the principles.’ What Donald Leeper believes has happened instead is that ‘partnering’ contract clauses are becoming even more onerous and that the boundaries of responsibility are becoming more blurred, when what is required is joint and several liability for the whole project from each key member of the supply chain. Risk dumping occurs frequently, even where the risk is quite beyond the influence of the supply partner to manager, and insistence on retentions continues. A paradox is that designers, both architects and engineers, find themselves playing an ‘elaborate game of musical chairs’ as they continue to be sought after for their specialist skills, but by different leading contractors/consortia. Donald Leeper’s solution to such problems is the development of trust. He says, ‘It is often difficult to avoid the conclusion that many organisations have not fully realised that developing trust is potentially a powerful source of competitive advantage: that being adversarial with suppliers and partners consumes more resources than taking a proactive commercial approach based on trust. I know this works; I have proved it in our practice over more than two decades.’ In considering what factors are considered in making a decision whether or not to trust someone, Donald Leeper referred to a survey by Sally Bibb and Jeremy Kourdi (‘Trust matters’, published by Palgrave Macmillan). The 10 most frequently looked for attributes are: fairness, dependability, respect, openness, courage, unselfishness, competence, supportivness, empathy and compassion. CIBSE’s president points out that nine items in this list are character qualities and that only competence is directly concerned with technical skills and expertise. ‘In other words, our individual competencies are far less of a problem than our ability to deliver to our ultimate client.’ The elegance of engineering With so much of engineering being concerned with meeting technical requirements, such as being designed to deliver a 60% reduction in carbon emissions, Donald Leeper is concerned that building-services engineers are neglecting aesthetic aspects. He referred to a letter he received 14 years ago from the then president of CIBSE Tom Smith: ‘We engineers have for too long dealt only with what is measurable and calculable and failed miserably to address the visual and aesthetic aspects of our engineering which are, to a large extent, intuitive.’ Donald Leeper declared his agreement with Tom Smith that elegance should be sought in every aspect of life. He said ‘One is unlikely to produce elegant solutions to problems if surrounded by ugliness. One of the greatest pleasures of my working life has been that elusive feeling of delight — when one has managed not only to appreciate the broad principles of the architect’s intent but recognised the part our own skills have had in realising that intuitive element of design. ‘When function is accompanied by delight, we need be in no doubt that as engineers we serve our clients and our society well.’
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