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David Frise Jul 9, 2024 12:41:12 PM 9 min read

We are good guys too


Our new Prime Minister has a bulging in-tray and building services engineering is probably not at the forefront of his mind right now, but maybe it should be.

We are an industry that you have never heard of, but which has a huge impact on everyone who uses a building…so that’s everyone.  We can deliver on many of the things that are still just promises in the Labour manifesto – not least climate change/net zero, improvements to social housing, tackling healthcare issues that threaten to overwhelm the NHS, and economic growth.

David Frise 2024

What were the three big issues that were of most concern to voters: Healthcare, schools, and the economy. Yes, we can help with all of those… and, in return, the new government could help us overcome our perennial enemy – ‘value engineering’?

Many of the barriers to progress on Sir Keir’s bulging in-tray of promises come back to people getting into building for the wrong reasons. On the most recent BESA Podcast, our guest the healthcare expert Dr Phil Webb asked the industry a fundamental question:

‘Why do you build things?’

‘If you are building just for profit and in a way that means you will not be sued for poor design, then why bother?’, he said. However, if you are building because you want to improve the standard of the built environment for the benefit of all – including mitigating the impact of climate change and making people safer, healthier, and happier, then you deserve to get a return on your investment.

Dr Webb also pointed out that poor quality indoor environments were responsible for “tens of thousands of deaths worldwide” (according to the most recent data from the World Health Organisation) at an annual rate that dwarfs cancer, heart attacks and other better publicised conditions, but they receive a tiny fraction of the money invested in almost every other healthcare issue.

Surely, this is an issue that should make our new PM sit up and take notice of us and ‘make the invisible visible’.

In his parting speech, Rishi Sunak described Sir Keir as "a decent and public-spirited man who I respect". Colleagues have also described him as a principled and diligent man with an attention to detail, so I think if we can lay out our case his government will listen.

First and foremost, we need to be allowed to get on with the job and not be forced to compromise our designs because of the current obsession with the short-term gains of investors many of whom will never even set foot in the building.

The Building Safety Act is, at least partly, seeking to address this by ensuring there is much clearer transparency about who is making changes and why. It would be very helpful if the new government could come out quickly and clearly behind the legislation – and then back that up with strong commitments on enforcement.

‘Value engineering’ (otherwise known as leaving things out to increase profits) is the enemy of successful buildings. We desperately need a comprehensive, national programme to retrofit and refurbish our (approximately) 30 million buildings at a rate of around 5% a year to meet climate change goals – we are currently going at around 2%.

This will be essential to deliver net zero and will also improve health and wellbeing outcomes for everyone who uses a building – because better buildings are just better all round. Schools, hospitals, care homes…all need to be tackled, as well as homes and offices.

Without a good learning environment how can we expect our children to learn and thrive? That’s fundamental to the retrofit challenge.

However, we are hampered

Building services supply chains continue to suffer from strangulated cash flow due to delays to payment and unfair contractual practices. Like all good capitalists, we believe in the principle of risk and reward, but the construction version is: ‘You take the risk and I’ll reap the reward’.

This does not make for a healthy industry that can grow and invest while also being able to meet all its quality commitments to building occupants.

It is relatively easy to block access to public sector contracts for those firms who persistently fail to pay on time…so long as the political will to block them is there. Our new government is starting with a clean slate on this issue, so it has a chance.

Widening the use of project bank accounts also helps to reduce SME’s risk and encourages them to make the necessary investments in training and recruitment to keep construction going.

Freeing up the flow of money into our supply chains would allow us to make headway on relieving the pressure on the NHS. Our health and social care workers are in a never-ending struggle of treating the symptoms of chronic conditions like asthma, with patients then sent back to unhealthy homes with an indoor environment that exacerbates their condition.

Awaab Ishak

The surge of mould and damp in homes is directly linked to soaring rates of respiratory disease and prompted the creation of Awaab’s Law as part of the Social Housing Bill. Again, early commitment from the new administration to addressing the problem at source would be a huge boon for our ventilation and air quality experts who have been crying out for a concerted effort in this area.

Linked to this is overheating. Our climate is getting hotter and wetter, and our buildings are struggling to cope. Some of the temperatures reported around the world this year have been astonishing. In Saudi Arabia, as temperatures hit 50°C in the shade, 1,300 of the pilgrims who flocked to Mecca for the hajj died.

Last month, 100 million Americans were living in areas subject to heat warnings, with Baltimore and Philadelphia approaching a scorching 40°C. Indians suffered 40,000 cases of heatstroke between March and mid-June, with Delhi recently enduring 40 consecutive days over 40°C.

Far from being a series of freak events, this is the new normal.

Our invisible industry is at the forefront of efforts to address this for the benefit of people all over the world. We have the solutions that can be applied at scale and will be increasingly important in the UK. Again, this should be of interest to any public-spirited leader keen to improve lives.

Air conditioning already saves thousands of lives worldwide every year and improving ventilation and air quality in UK buildings will be crucial as our climate evolves.

Even as temperatures soar, deaths can be avoided, and economic disruption minimised. Rich, hot places such as Phoenix, Kuwait and Singapore are adapting, as did parts of Europe after recent heatwaves. Rather than swooning helplessly, the rest of the world should look and learn. The basic idea is simple: get people out of the sun and into the cool.

Extreme heat can cause heatstroke, heart problems and dehydration. Populations that are not used to it are more vulnerable. So are the elderly, whose health is often fragile and who find it harder to move somewhere cooler. And the poor suffer most: they are more likely to labour in the sun and live in cramped, ill-ventilated homes. A Mumbai slum can be 6°C hotter than nearby apartments.

Air conditioning, where affordable, is part of the answer. If powered by renewable energy, it does not undermine our efforts to cut carbon emissions, and it can save lives. A study in the Lancet concluded that there were 345,000 heat-related deaths worldwide in 2019 among the over-65s, and that the toll would have been 50% higher without air conditioning.

Rethinking our cities and investing in infrastructure is vital. That’s building engineering services again.

Architects in Singapore design buildings to funnel wind around the city, while a vast tree-planting effort provides shade and retains moisture. However, it takes time and a mountain of cash to redesign a city. That is why quicker, cheaper fixes are needed.

Three stand out. First, workplaces and schools need to be more flexible. In America states such as California and Washington have rules that mandate shade and water breaks for outdoor workers when it is excessively hot. More places need similar guidelines. Also, children should be allowed to study from home and public events should be cancelled when the temperature is too high.

The second step is to create more chilled public spaces to provide relief and refuge. Some American cities have “cooling centres”—as do others in India and Vietnam. Often these are ordinary buildings with air conditioning, from libraries to offices, that can temporarily be opened to all.

Even simple adaptations can make a difference: painting a roof white can cut indoor temperatures by several degrees. We are not talking always taking about vast sums, just sensible levels of investment with clear financial and social returns – that’s called building engineering services.


Governments and citizens need to be better prepared, particularly in places that are unused to roasting temperatures. After the emergency in 2003 France was shocked into creating a national plan for heatwaves, with an early-warning system and guidelines on everything from sporting events to training medical staff. During a record-breaking heatwave in 2019, the country had 90% fewer casualties than in 2003.

In the UK, the new Labour administration could send a positive signal by giving an early commitment to the Future Homes and Buildings Standard, due to be enacted next year, which includes provisions for addressing overheating for the first time. We can deliver this for them.

However, there is another barrier – our antediluvian planning system. The past 14 years of Conservative rule have seen a steady decline in planning resources – this needs to be swiftly reversed to give us a fleeter footed system able to respond to the new challenges we face, and able to face down the nimbyism that is impeding progress.

For example, there is great potential to green our national grid, but hundreds of renewable projects are stuck in the system and without radical change Labour’s green pledges are simply not possible in the current timeframe.

So, it was encouraging to see that the new Chancellor Rachel Reeves made planning reform one of her first announcements in office. She made freeing up construction part of her “national mission” to kickstart economic growth, including a re-set for housing targets and a renewed focus on developments on the ‘greybelt’ and a consultation on a new National Planning Policy Framework to “get Britain building again”.

This should be in tune with Sir Keir’s recognition that British people want a form of government that would “tread more lightly on your lives”. This means, I believe, less imposition of hard and fast rules from the centre and more scope for local decision making.

Rules should be set by central governments, but the responsibility to enact them must be delegated to cities and towns. Things like extreme heat vary according to local conditions, so local officials are best placed to sound the alarm, and citizens can hold local governments accountable if they fail to plan properly.

Building engineers do not accept that there must be more suffering and death in the face of our changing climate, or that social depravation inevitably means our people must live in shoddy homes that directly harm their health.

We have the answers and most of them are not expensive. Our low-profile industry can play a huge role in delivering the engineered solutions that a new socially conscious and publicly spirited administration should champion.

The British people believe they were voting for ‘good guy’ in the shape of our new sensible and diligent PM. As engineers working to transform the built environment and retrofit millions of buildings for the benefit of everyone in our society, we would argue that we are also the ‘good guys’ and we look forward to working with him.