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Admin Feb 19, 2022 12:10:00 PM 6 min read

Out of Adversity Comes A United Front


“Coming together is a beginning; staying together is progress; and working together is success” Henry Ford.

BESA Chief Executive Officer David Frise explains why this is the right time to launch a new alliance of eight engineering services organisations.

“So what did you do during the great world pandemic of 2020/21?” That’s a question many of us will face from our children and grandchildren in the decades to come…and what will we say?

“We hunkered down and rode out the storm.” Or… “we took part in a period of amazing change that eventually created the wonderful built environment your lucky generation are experiencing today.”?

Times are uncertain and the changes we are going through are unprecedented, but we are also on the cusp of a period of extraordinary and positive change. That is why the new engineering services alliance Actuate UK was launched this month. 

The last year has been a huge struggle, but it has accelerated some really important changes such as the surge in digital technologies, an amazing joint effort by pharmaceutical companies to develop vaccines that will save thousands, even millions, of lives and, in our industry, the Construction Leadership Council bringing the sector together in an unprecedented way to create a co-ordinated response to the crisis.

Our new alliance seeks to build in that new found spirit of collaboration that made it possible for us to support essential services like hospitals, supermarkets and schools in a way that would never have been possible if we had stuck with our ‘traditional’ fragmented supply chains and dog-eat-dog approach.

It is vital that we seize this opportunity to build a new and lasting collaborative culture – and by bringing eight organisations together we aim to keep up that momentum.

Initially, Actuate UK will represent the interests of our sector on four key issues:

  • The new post-Covid world of business;
  • Hackitt – post-Grenfell competence and compliance;
  • Skills for the new environment;
  • The climate crisis and net zero target. 

We aim to offer leadership, expertise and, above all, practical guidance – particularly to small businesses. The alliance will deliver a single consolidated voice for the UK engineering services sector and make sure our companies are properly listened to and respected when the big decisions are being made.

We have earned that right over the years, but the pandemic has made what we do more visible and suddenly policy makers and influencers are sitting up and taking notice of what we do.

As a collective, we supply the essential elements that bring buildings to life, we ‘Actuate’ the built environment.  This is literally the air that people breathe and the water they drink.  We light them and power their equipment for work and entertainment. 

We keep people comfortable and if we succeed as designers, they are not aware of what we have done because they are not too hot or cold, the lighting is perfect…and they can’t see or hear it because it all works. 

It is often only when things don’t work that you recognise the value of engineering services, but engineering services are vital to the economy and, as the pandemic has proved: “If you want essential services you need building services.”

A sector that includes more than 60,000 businesses, over 350,000 skilled professionals and comprises some 40% of UK construction by value deserves a more co-ordinated representation in the corridors of power. We directly contribute £100bn to the country’s GDP and enable a further £600bn – what we do affects everyone in our society.

And as buildings use almost half of all carbon emissions, engineering services also provide a significant part of the solution to the climate crisis and UK’s Net Zero ambitions.

Yet, we have historically struggled to bring that collective influence to bear and to speak with ‘one voice’. We must be honest that this alliance is just the latest of a number of previous attempts to improve collaboration. Some earlier partnerships foundered because we were unable to achieve compromise between competing agendas. The very nature of our supply chains has pushed us into silos, but Actuate UK represents each segment of the sector and is focussed on what unites us – not what has historically pushed us apart.

History will, of course, judge if this time we are more successful, but the extraordinary times and the lessons of the pandemic should make us feel more confident than ever before. We have proved we can come together to make a difference and now is the time to build on that for the future.

Ventilation – the invisible made visible
For example, who could have predicted that ventilation would have become so central to the public discussion and be recognised for playing such a key role in protecting our future way of life? Out of sight and out of mind for so long, but now front and central. Even before the pandemic 90% of people were spending up to 90% of their time in a building…during lockdown that almost certainly increased.

At a time when people are spending more time than ever confined to their homes, the value of a properly engineered indoor environment is more visible than ever.

People are also wearing face coverings because they are now more conscious of what could be in the air they are breathing. Previously, the general public was a bit hazy about airborne threats even though the average adult, when resting, inhales and exhales about 13kg of air per day. If you compare that with daily food intake of around 2kg and fluids of 3kg– it is extraordinary that people haven’t given this more thought…until now.

Our industry is a specialist in tackling invisible threats like poor indoor air quality and, suddenly, that invisible threat is visible.

Even the name Actuate UK underlines an action orientated approach. We want to enable sustained and positive change. The alliance brings together all the elements of the supply chain from designers, manufacturers, and installers to commissioning and maintenance companies responsible for the 80% of a building’s value that is realised throughout its operational life.

And we must enable the development of a new modern workforce equipped with the skills to drive productivity and efficiency in everything our sector does.

A crucial point raised during the launch of the alliance was the fact that ‘green skills’ are going to be more essential than ‘green technologies’ because without the ability to install, commission and maintain equipment and infrastructure, the government’s plans for a green recovery and net zero future will be impossible.

Clients don’t buy products shrink wrapped on a pallet, they buy them correctly designed, installed and operated within a system and integrated into other systems. Our integrated solutions facilitate the development of smart buildings, which in turn can lead to smart cities and smart infrastructure.

All of that is totally dependent on a joined-up approach that sees building engineering solutions as a complete whole – an integrated system that delivers social value throughout its operating life – and that complete approach is what we will be trying to replicate through this alliance.

To learn more about Actuate UK and help shape its activities

Actuate UK includes:

The Building Engineering Services Association (BESA)

The Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA)

The Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE)

The Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA)

The Federation of Environmental Trade Associations (FETA)

The Lift and Escalator Industry Association (LEIA)

SELECT – the Electrical Contractors’ Association of Scotland

The Scottish and NI Plumbing Employers’ Federation (SNIPEF)

You can watch the ActuateUK launch video here.