Exosuits give industry workers a taste of superhero strength

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

We live in a world where gadgets and technology make our lives easier daily and with wearable technology comes the added promise of increased worker safety and productivity.

Wearable technology is defined as any accessory or piece of clothing incorporating electronic and computer technology. As the industry gets more familiar with technology, digital solutions are being used in all areas of the industry, we’re moving away from paper trails and manual building and towards online solutions, new technology, apps and robots that can do the job for us. Some fear robots will take over and the need for humans in the industry will dwindle, but I think we need to fear technology less and accept it’s going to improve our working life, making once difficult jobs much easier to complete.

Construction workers could soon have a taste of a superhero’s strength, thanks to a robotic vest that is designed to prevent injuries on building sites. Willmott Dixon are the first in the UK to trial the EksoVest, an upper body exoskeleton vest that supports a worker’s arms during heavy lifting using various adjustable springs that transfer the weight of a load. The EksoVest is a spring-loaded exoskeleton for the upper body that makes heavy items feel weightless during lifting, by taking the strain that traditionally would hit the shoulders hard. The power suit will allow workers to spend long days lifting materials and holding tools at awkward angles without the physical stresses usually associated with such tasks. It should lead to teams on site feeling less exerted and improve wellbeing and productivity. For many companies it will overcome the problem of workers’ bodies being gradually broken down over a 20-25-year period, which can result in early retirement or the need to move into other job roles to avoid further injuries or surgery.

The vest costs approximately £5,650, which is a lot of money. However, there are currently more than 100,000 injuries on site each year, which, on top of being painful or life threatening, costs the industry thousands of pounds each year. If the EksoVest can cut a fraction of that, it will be worthwhile in my opinion.

Working on a construction site can easily take its toll on the human body. Tasks can be strenuous, repetitive, high-impact and it shows. Productivity, and workers’ wellbeing and longevity are affected. Wearable technology is now there to lend a helping hand – literally. By the end of this year, a full-body robotically-powered suit is also in the works with Ekso. The kit would allow workers to lift significant weights as they freely move around site without the need for specialist vehicles – Tony Stark, eat your heart out.

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email catriona@cene.org.uk.

Architecture and Wellbeing

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

Monday of this week (January 21) has been dubbed ‘the most depressing day of the year’. Blue Monday falls on the third Monday of January and is the perfect opportunity to raise the issue of mental wellbeing in the industry.

Construction workers are particularly vulnerable to feeling down after Christmas, long, dark and cold days certainly take their toll. The mental health and wellbeing of workers are a high priority, especially recently, with a number of initiatives in place and organisations starting to take it more seriously.

As an industry responsible for the construction of buildings and offices, we can also make a change and improve the working environments for others.  Almost three-quarters (74%) of UK employees believe that their work environment supports their physical wellbeing. While this is a very encouraging statistic, it still means that more than one in four UK office workers suffer in unhealthy environments. The Wellbeing at Work Study paid particular attention to the concerns of those who are unhappy with their workplace to reveal the biggest pitfalls to avoid.

From a design point of view, over a quarter of UK employees find the acoustics of their office unpleasant & three-quarters of those blamed it on a noisy open plan environment. A further quarter (27%) are frustrated by a lack of privacy. Of the quarter who state their office does not encourage them to move around, three-quarters (72%) blame the awkward design of their workplace. A lot of the complaints regarding office design came from lack of colour (80%) and greenery (64%).

The results show the impact that small changes can have on employee wellbeing and the boost that can be received from a splash of colour or the introduction of some greenery. However, design considerations now go way beyond aesthetics and the understanding of what makes a healthy architecture has changed radically. What used to be about hygiene and health is now more about psychological wellbeing. I don’t think there’s a question of whether architecture affects our health and wellbeing, it’s more about how much it does.

We have all heard the statistics: one in four people will suffer from mental health problems. However, the reality is that everyone will at some point see their mental health take a dip, so it would be more accurate to say that everybody at some point will suffer from mental health problems. Ignoring this fact can lead to high turnover of staff, loss of expertise, a demotivated workforce and more severe cases. If we can make somebody’s life easier, whether that’s support in work, the décor of an office or the design of the building, then why wouldn’t we? We’re the only industry that can have an impact on the design of the building, so I think we need to take our role and responsibility seriously.


For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email catriona@cene.org.uk

Are we doing all that we can to get children to consider a career in the industry after school?

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

As an industry we’ve struggled to appeal to the younger generation and increase the number of children considering construction as a career when they leave school. We have been working to challenge perceptions that the industry is a male dominated, old fashioned, dirty industry, which is a good place to start.

Over Christmas, the LEGO Movie was released in cinemas which featured a construction worker as the main character who is guided by a diverse band of ‘master builders’ that literally use their construction skills to build their way past every challenge. The film was so popular, grossing half a billion worldwide and LEGO struggled to keep up with demand for its toys after the film’s release. Great news for film makers and a positive step getting children to put down tablets and pick up building blocks (like the good old days!) but is it enough to get them to want to work in the industry? Sadly, I think not.

For years we’ve had the likes of Bob the Builder, Minecraft and the first LEGO Movie showcasing our industry but that still doesn’t seem to be working. Even newer TV shows are trying but they still aren’t getting it quite right. Paw Patrol, a very popular children’s cartoon about a group of rescue dogs who work together to protect the community. Each dog has a different job ranging from a fireman and paramedic to recycling and Rubble is the construction dog. While it’s great he’s flying the flag for the industry, he’s also male and an English Bulldog, one of the most muscular breeds, which certainly isn’t a requirement to work in the industry.

Whatever makes children swap building blocks for bricks and mortar in the future is going to be more than a popular film at the cinema. We all watched Mary Poppins as well but that doesn’t mean we’re all going to start hiring magical nannies, as nice as that would be. We need to crack our marketing and work on our public perception, with people of all ages, not just children. The image people have in their head is not a true representation of how the industry is today. We’ve come a long way in terms of technology and skills, and the general public just aren’t aware of the reality of construction today. We need to get better at communicating the jobs available, informing parents/school career advisors and pupils that there are many professions within the industry; it’s certainly not just hard hats and muddy boots anymore. If we give them a true representation of what they can expect, and what the industry is like, then we’ve done all we can and it’s down to them to decide if construction is right for them.

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email catriona@cene.org.uk.

The Environmental Impact of Concrete

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

Concrete is the most widely used man-made material in existence. It is second only to water as the most-consumed resource on the planet. But, while it may have shaped most of our built environment, it also has a huge carbon footprint.

According to Chatham House, cement is the source of about 8% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. To put that into perspective, if the cement industry was a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world. It contributes more CO2 than aviation fuel and isn’t far behind the global agriculture business. Following this research, architects have been urged to reconsider their use of concrete given that the UK has set a 2050 target to reduce its carbon emissions to 80% less than it was in 1990, so we need to be doing everything we can.

It’s no surprise that cement is so widely used, it’s a remarkably good construction material. A mix of sand, gravel, a cement binder and water, concrete is widely embraced by architects, structural engineers, developers and builders. It’s affordable, which is always a bonus, and you can produce it almost anywhere. Perhaps it’s not about reducing how much cement we use but more looking into how it is produced. Research from Chatham House found that more than 50% of emissions are linked to the process for producing clinker, one of the main ingredients involved in the manufacture of cement. There are alternatives to cement such as the waste from steel production, although there is not a huge supply. Obviously, I don’t think we need to stop using it, but I do think the industry needs to take this into consideration and industry workers need to be more efficient when using it.

The IPCC’s latest report warned that the world has just 12 years left to moderate CO2 emissions and halt devastating global warming, so it’s not just a case of ‘trying’ to be green, it’s getting pretty serious and I certainly don’t want our industry to be the one of the main causes given everything we’ve been doing over the years to improve.

We recognise that we work in one of the biggest industries in the world, and because of what we do, we have potential to cause a lot of damage but that means we also have the most potential to make a difference on protecting the environment. Companies are always thinking of new innovative ways of being efficient and we’ve really stepped up our game in the last few years. Offsite construction is now becoming the norm, we’ve got PopUp Houses, plastic roads, even a ‘bubble’ building here in Newcastle, all of which are slowly making a difference.  While the aesthetics of a building are still important, we need to consider the materials we’re using and their wider impact – hopefully we’re all in agreement on that.

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email catriona@cene.org.uk.

What can we expect for 2019?

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

Happy New Year to you all – I hope you’ve all had a lovely Christmas break and are raring to get started. I cannot believe it’s 2019 and another new year is ahead of us, but I’m looking forward to seeing what the next 12 months have in store– I think it’s certainly going to be a busy one! While you can never predict exactly what the year ahead holds, there are a few things I expect to see, Brexit being the biggest change, but I won’t hold my breath on that.

Let’s start with a positive. The Construction Products Association (CPA) predict that output will accelerate in by 2.3% in 2019 and 1.9% 2020. House-building is forecast to be the primary driver of growth for the whole industry. In private housing, first-time buyer demand, enabled by the government’s Help to Buy scheme, continues to boost sentiment and encourage an increase in housebuilding activity outside London. There are ambitious housebuilding targets both in the public and private sectors. But luckily, we are seeing growing interest in offsite manufacture, digital and sustainable construction. Compared to other industries we’ve been slow to adapt to the digital age, but the smart building tech industry has grown significantly, and the pace of change is now inevitable.

For many years we’ve struggled with a skills shortage and with less people coming into the industry we’re now struggling with an ageing workforce. Organisations that can attract and retain a young workforce are likely to score well in bid processes, as they can provide some evidence on delivery capability. As budgets get tighter, clients are looking to added value within bids as a way of getting something extra. Monetising your added-value benefits is important to demonstrate the financial value and there can be other benefits too – social value, for example, which is obviously a really big deal. Certainly, things to think about going into the year.

The North East industry had a good 2018 with many of our projects/companies being recognised at the National Constructing Excellence Awards. Seven of our entries came away as winners or highly commended, it was a very good night for the North East, one I’m extremely proud of.

We’ve overcome some tough challenges in the last year alone and that only proves to me that this industry can achieve anything! The demise of Carillion resulted in a poor performance for the industry at the start of last year, which combined with the bad weather, was estimated to have lost UK construction £1bn in productivity, surely 2019 can get off to a better start.  So, let’s get our heads down and have a good year – bring it on 2019, we’re ready for you!

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email catriona@cene.org.uk.

A look back over 2018

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

It’s that time of year again when everywhere you look there are reviews of the last 12 months and predictions of what we can expect from the year ahead. If I had to summarise what 2018 was like for our industry, I would say three things- progressive, amazing and bloomin’ hard work!

A new year is a natural point in time to stop, assess how things have gone over the past 12 months, look at everything that we’ve achieved and look at what we can do better in the coming year. While you can never predict exactly what the year ahead holds, I’m sure we all had a few things in mind, the outcome of Brexit being the main one, yet here we are one year later and still pretty much none the wiser. Instead, we got the collapse of Carillion, a never-ending winter and little Grenfell resolution.

We had the alarming statistics that 56% of female respondents to Building’s survey on women in construction had experienced sexual harassment and 33% been discriminated against on the grounds of sex in the previous 12 months. The gender pay gap report in April confirmed the disappointing news that most women in the industry work in low-paid roles. We also had the really scary news that low-skilled male construction workers are almost four times more likely to take their own lives than the national average, with the number of suicides in construction now six times higher than deaths caused by falls from height.

We didn’t get off to the best start of the year with snow and ice sticking around until the end of March, causing problems for the industry’s output in the first quarter. But eventually output picked up and the government published the Construction Sector Deal, which was the biggest investment in the industry in a decade, something we’d all been longing for. The deal, worth £420m aims to transform the industry by investing in new technologies to increase productivity and tackle the housing crisis. It supports the development of affordable, easy to construct homes and commits to increasing the number of apprenticeships starts and T Level placements.

Last month, the chancellor gave the final Budget before Brexit and it made some small adjustments but lacked bold, long-term commitments, which I think we all expected. I feel like I’ve been saying this year in year out, but with the fallout of Brexit still looming, who knows what next year holds. So, there’s just one thing left for me to say, from all of us at Constructing Excellence in the North East, we wish you a very Merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous new year. Let’s see what 2019 has in store for us – one thing’s for sure, it’s not going to be a quiet one.

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email catriona@cene.org.uk.

Industry precautions when working in bad weather

If you thought last winter was cold, I’ve got bad news for you. This winter is expected to be the coldest for ten years.

According to weather forecasters Exacta Weather, temperatures are expected to fall well below average with things getting even worse in the New Year with widespread snowfall, icy storms and high winds. In the winter, strong winds, cold temperatures, snow and rain have the potential to cause serious hazards for workers in the industry, both regarding disruption to current building projects and possible damage to existing buildings that may not meet current wind and snow load standards.

External walls and roofs not designed to withstand such extreme weather demands could suffer severe damage. However, with preventative action the extent of such damage can be lessened, according to UK leading roofing and cladding specialists, CA Group Ltd. Over the past couple of years, we have witnessed changing weather intensity with severe flooding, record summer temperatures, early snowfall and now we’re facing a potentially harsh winter. Such unpredictable situations can prove costly, severely impacting timeframes on new builds and refurbishment projects and putting older buildings under much pressure.  Traditionally, buildings were designed with local climates in mind and not for worse-case and unpredictable weather, which means they are more susceptible to weather damage. This is much less of an issue for new builds which tend to be better designed, better equipped and much more capable of responding to extreme weather.

Poor specifications can lead to poor installations – resulting in major failures. Ridge and verge flashings that have ripped off the building are some of the most common faults and can often prove costly. Bull nose features at eaves and verges, unless correctly designed and correctly installed with adequate fasteners, are prone to failure.  Ridges, corners and edges of a building are most susceptible to high winds.  It is therefore crucial for project-specific calculations to be undertaken to establish the loads, complete with full design data for the cladding systems and details, or the buildings envelope will not be designed to withstand the wind loads in the concentrated areas.

In anticipation of the bad weather, there are preventative measures that can be taken. Something as simple as introducing snow guards and measures to manually remove the snow can prevent serious accidents but my one piece of advice would just be prepared for the weather or work with a company who knows how to deal with it.  CA Group work to establish structural standards, load capacities and risk analysis to provide a thorough assessment of a building’s needs over its life, taking into account snow, wind pressure, location and altitude. Working from such an informed position results in a much higher quality build, with the likelihood of weather damage being far less.

For further guidance please contact CA Group Ltd on technical@cagroup.co.uk

£72m given to technical industry research

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

The government has approved £72m for industry research into technical innovation. The Core Innovation Hub is part of the government’s modern Industrial Strategy, it will transform the industry by supporting the development and use of technologies such as digital design, advanced manufacturing, robotics, drones and augmented and virtual reality.

Following a nationwide competition as part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, the government, through UK Research and Innovation, awarded the funding to the Transforming Construction Alliance, a partnership between the Manufacturing Technology Centre, BRE and Cambridge University’s Centre for Digital Built Britain.

The increased use of technology will enable the industry to design and build faster, cheaper and more sustainably – which is exactly what we all want. Smart sensors and digital systems will be incorporated into buildings and infrastructure, so they can manage and maintain themselves – and the data they gather will enable the government and industry to make our towns and cities better places to live, work and travel in.

As an industry, we have historically been slower than others in maximising the opportunities arising from innovation. Understanding innovation’s value is so important in a fast-moving business climate where markets and technologies are continually evolving. While we have worked hard to keep up with the changes and challenges if we do not now focus on embedding innovation in our businesses and across the industry, there is a risk that we will be left behind and become uncompetitive. The Core Innovation Hub is there to ensure this does not happen and that the industry meets the challenges it could face. It will be a constant helping hand and reminder that we need to put innovation in the heart of everything we do. It plays an essential role in delivering increased sector productivity by accelerating industry innovation. It will enable businesses to develop and validate new products and manufacturing and assembly processes and will leverage investment into UK offsite manufacturing capability.

Modern technologies will be the cornerstone of construction sector reform to increase productivity, efficiency and quality of delivery. However, for change to happen, new cultures and ways of working need to be driven from the top; leaders of companies large and small need to ‘think digital’ in everything they do. Constructing Excellence in the North East are holding an event with the Construction Industry Training Board and Generation for Change about the opportunities and challenges of digital construction technologies. The ‘Unlocking Constructions Digital Future’ event on Thursday 31 January, will include speakers from; CITB, BIM Strategy, Kier and Space. The event will look at:

  • How to increase your awareness of digital construction techniques
  • Future digital construction technologies
  • The implications for construction skills and training
  • Funding available to digitally upskill your workforce.

To register for this event please contact Grace Collinson on 0191 500 7880 or grace@cene.org.uk

Procuring for Value

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

Earlier this year, the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) called for an outcome based, transparent and efficient industry in its Procuring for Value report.

The report outlined how the industry needs to change to improve productivity, end user satisfaction and safeguard those in the industry, providing recommendations on how government, clients and the industry can develop a brand-new approach to procurement. Bringing construction productivity up to the national average would deliver an extra £15bn of value each year. We need to get clients away from just accepting the lowest bids regardless of quality and the report suggests ways of doing that. It recommends the development of an industry-wide definition of value that takes into account more than just capital cost.

It advocates the production of new forms of contracts that reduce the role of lawyers in the industry. What tends to happen is that most companies hand over the responsibility of administration of contracts to legal advisors with an enormous focus on the theoretical transfer of risk downwards, rather than the placement of risk. Failure to fully understand obligations under the contract, coupled with commercial pressures exerted to ignore the contract (payment terms being the best example of this) create a very uncertain landscape in which some construction activity takes place. The lack of contractual recognition of the whole-life value and the failure to incorporate whole-life risks mean that there is a growing view that current industry forms of contract will not meet future requirements. Contractual models need to be versatile enough to accommodate changes in the sector such as offsite manufacturing, BIM and other advances in technology.

This is the perfect opportunity to make the next generation of contracts cloud based. A contract that creates a living set of priced risks where every relationship has transparency. We need to investigate how contractual forms within the built environment can become digitally enabled and SMART-cloud based to introduce transparency and whole-life project focus.

Based on how the industry has always delivered, the current forms just won’t facilitate innovations, so something needs to change. Construction needs to change. Ann Bentley urges ‘every rung of the supply chain to take responsibility and understand their impact on the industry and the larger financial picture that is at play’ and the report highlights as an industry how we can do just this.

The report builds on the 2016 Farmer Review and proposes steps to implement the construction sector deal by extending existing government policy and industry best practice.

Constructing Excellence in the North East are holding an event on Procuring for Value, looking at the report and what the industry can be doing. It will feature talks from Ann Bentley, Global Director at Rider Levett Bucknall, and Procuring for Value lead for the Construction Leadership Council and Rob Charlton, CEO, Space Group.


To register for this event please contact Grace on 0191 5007880 or grace@cene.org.uk

The Rising Threat of Fraud in the Industry

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

Over the last few years, the rules surrounding the Construction Skills Certification Scheme card have changed a lot, which means the way fraudsters are working have changed a lot too.

Before 2014, the procedure for obtaining a construction skills card bearing the CSCS logo was relatively straightforward. You could go to the CITB test centre, sit their health, safety and environment test, pass the test and have a card within 48 hours. But as the rules have changed, going as far as chips and ghost marks as well as requiring qualification certificates to be sent into CSCS as part of an application, fraudsters have evolved.

The CITB fraud team have stepped up their search recently as the industry is being targeted more by human traffickers and organised crime rings, due to it being relatively low-risk but high reward. On most of the cases the CITB fraud team are working on, they found that perpetrators using counterfeit skills cards and qualifications often have ties with organised crime groups that are linked to trafficking and modern slavery. One ongoing case has shown that facilitators are making £50,000 – £60,000 a week on this type of activity. There have also been instances where illegally trafficked people found to be in possession of fake cards will admit they didn’t take the test and they sent their photo as part of a package before leaving their country of origin. It really is as organised and calculated as that, and it needs to stop.

It is currently difficult to estimate the number of individuals working with fraudulently obtained skills cards, but the CITB fraud manager, Ian Sidney, believes it is only a small proportion. However, even if it’s just 1 or 2% that’s still too many, that’s hundreds or thousands of people who aren’t trained and are putting themselves and others in danger when working on site.

Clearly, this is not an issue the industry can tackle alone, but there are ways in which we can help. Cards can now be read electronically, something all site managers should be doing. This will alert them to a situation where fraud has been detected and a card cancelled. I understand that a lot of sites still operate with a visual inspection, but that’s where things need to change. We’re all creatures of habit but if it’s going to help with bigger criminal cases, it’s something we need to be doing to protect our industry. The way in which CSCS operates has been radically overhauled in the last seven years and we should be moving with them. The CSCS are now in a position where pretty much all cards are being issued on the basis of a qualification and by 2020, they all will be – so with more effort from industry workers, we should definitely see a change in the next few years.

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email catriona@cene.org.uk.