The benefits of the recession

WSP, consulting engineer
Building for a stronger future — Philippe Honnorat.

Philippe Honnorat of WSP believes that the recession helped consultants sharpen up the skills they acquired before it and prepare them for the future.

2004 was the year that saw the launch of Facebook, the visit of Tony Blair to Muhammar Khadafi’s Libya, the Olympics returning to Greece, the re-election of George W. Bush as US President and in London of Ken Livingstone as Mayor. In 2004 there was also the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. In our industry we saw the beginning of construction for the Burj Khalifa, the opening of Taipei 101, which was tallest building in the world at the time, Norman Foster’s ‘Gherkin’ opened in the City of London, and there was the ground breaking for the Freedom Tower in Manhattan.

The economy was strong, the dot-com boom and bust was behind us, and real estate finance was active. Developers were building in various sectors.

What did this all mean?

Consultants were as busy as ever, with much growth in domestic and international markets.

Energy regulations were continuing to challenge the status quo, to the point that new buildings could not just be a repetition of old ones.

More powerful computers meant 3D drawings could be considered. REVIT was just being released by AutoDesk, which signalled that 3D was going to crossover to the mainstream soon.

As consultants were doing relatively well, they could invest in these new technologies and start the process of retooling. These new tools in turn meant that architectural form was evolving towards less traditional shapes, creating yet new engineering challenges.

Those were heady days that lasted until 2008. Importantly, there was enough time to allow the above changes to take hold in the industry, before the crash. Thus new paradigms were not lost during the subsequent years of financial crisis. The crisis, however, brought about a retrenching of investment in real estate, leading to reduction in staff numbers at consultants and, with it, an associated loss of momentum in further development of technical skills.

We found the emphasis switching rapidly from helping clients in reaching a speculative real estate market quickly with high-quality products to helping clients in delivering cost-conscious products to a demanding and narrower market.

Consultants also found their client base evolving to include contractors, as design-and-build and contractor-led final design became more popular.

The prolonged recessionary climate forced us all to become ever more cost-conscious, and aware of alternative construction routes, such as pre-fabrication and modular design. Meanwhile, energy regulations continued to march on, creating more challenges and always forcing a re-think of old certainties regarding performance and delivery.

Having now better understood through the particularly long and deep recession the finer issues of construction methods, of best use of design time, of best use of modern tools, consultants who have maintained a strong core team with values and skills are today poised well to take advantage of the apparent upturn.

So the recession was a silver lining. Consultants have become sharper and more client-focused. The recession was not just about being economical with fees, but economical with design. Our operations are stronger; we are more fit-for-purpose.

The new challenge seems now to be revolving around managing growth sensibly in what appears to be shorter economic cycles. This means as the size of our teams increase we cannot afford to lose the high standards we set for our staff. At WSP we have 2500 building-services engineers across our global business, and we are looking to increase our UK team by 20% in the next two years alone.

The building-services consultant of the future needs to remain the expert adviser. I like to think of us as ‘technical lawyers’, providing the interface between the client and the contractor. I am looking for enthusiastic consultants who can break down the complex engineering challenges we are posed in a language the client understands.

We also need to make the case in a short period of time that as consultants we recognise and can help deal with the evolving changes in society. The next generation of office workers are going to take open plans, hot-desking, and social/mobile working as a given. Living at height is also increasingly becoming the norm as the skylines in our cities evolve. Therefore we must be prepared. I can only see building services becoming more important. It is going to be optimism, our enthusiasm and our understanding that drives us forward, and sets us apart, in the next 10 years.

Philippe Honnorat is UK head of building services for WSP, the global professional services consultancy.

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