Building something new for construction by working together

Edinburgh Napier's Dr Robert Hairstans on attracting young entrants into the construction industry and how the University's beX programme is helping.

Date posted

22 February 2018


Last updated

14 June 2022

A new way of thinking is required if we are to attract our top talent to the construction sector and the challenges of shaping our built environment.

The best and brightest are not queuing up to earn a living in the cold, damp, miserable workplaces of popular imagination.

Adversarial by structure, overly complicated by design and flawed on delivery - ‘snagging’ as it is universally known in the sector; the image is a turn-off to aspiring engineers, architects and construction professionals.

Let’s focus instead on the type of place where people want to work. Somewhere clean, safe, collaborative, diverse and multicultural. 

A place that has at its core people who are forward thinking and unafraid to innovate. A place where entrepreneurship is encouraged and there is a sense of strong collective leadership doing the right thing to ensure this and future generations are not consuming too much energy and producing excessive waste.

We need to encourage the next generation to consider how they can participate in social, economic and environmental prosperity and be part of a circular economy so that the communities we live in don’t end up impinging on our basic human needs.

At Edinburgh Napier University, we have created a Built Environment pathway which finds new ways to encourage this next generation and provide them with the education and skills they need to make a positive impact.

With industry partner AECOM, we have co-adopted Royal High School and had multi-disciplinary Masters students go back to teach modern digital design techniques on a voluntary basis via the Design Engineer and Construct programme.

We will be launching a graduate level apprenticeship scheme to reinforce our traditional degree courses with industry-tailored content and vocational upskilling for the new academic year in September.

And we’re working with Entrepreneurial Scotland to deliver a platform for career acceleration for undergraduate, early career postgraduate and doctorate students via our new Built Environment Exchange (beX).

We need to attract young talent to careers in this area and we need to ensure this talent is working collaboratively with industry as early as possible to create commercially aware and technically astute graduates.

Students from diverse degree backgrounds are eligible to apply to the beX postgraduate scholarship programme, and beX also offers penultimate and final year students the opportunity to participate in fully funded, paid international industry work experience.

This integration of education and industry engagement is key, and our students are getting internships, scholarship funding and employability opportunities augmented with commercial training to make them business ready. 

The programme harnesses top talent from a wide range of subject areas, not just architecture, engineering and construction. Different disciplines need to be working in concert to eradicate waste and defects whilst creating sustainable solutions that are designed for comfort and the end user in mind. Drawing on a range of talents can also create, for example, the digital frameworks and product design solutions for automated manufacture and logistical management. 

Our beX process works, and has led to individual success stories. Rory Doak, via a Saltire Scholarship and follow-on Masters in Advanced Structural Engineering, has worked on pre-manufactured schools in Malawi using local resources.

His developed engineering skills have resulted in him undertaking structural design for the Dyson Institute, and he will see this through production having taken a graduate job at Carbon Dynamic in the Highlands. 

Edinburgh Napier beX has also developed ties with the Harvard Graduate School of Design in Boston to further understand how we can shape the built environment in the future using offsite manufacturing approaches – essentially creating buildings in a factory. 

A group of organisations have formed Offsite Solutions Scotland (OSS), with Edinburgh Napier as the lead academic partner and funding support from Scottish Enterprise and the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre. OSS – including Stewart Milne Timber Systems, CCG, Carbon Dynamic, MAKAR Construction, Scotframe, Mactaggart & Mickel, Norscot, Robertson and Alexanders Timber Design - has a combined manufacturing output of £170million, and employs more than 1,000 people. 

Delivering built environment projects under a factory roof offers a clean working environment with a production focus, improving productivity, enhancing quality and facilitating workforce diversification. 

It is predicted that 295,000 houses per year need to be built in the UK until 2037 to tackle housing shortages.  These houses all need to meet future regulatory requirements given the challenge of fuel poverty and the environmental impact buildings have, accounting for about half of all our extracted materials and energy consumption. 

The fabric first approach of OSS responds to this, with higher levels of insulation reducing energy use and factory precision reducing waste materials by up to 40 per cent. In addition, OSS can embrace change and the emergence of digitisation, with computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacture used as standard in their businesses.

Early collaboration between different disciplines should continue to be encouraged to allow a different mindset to evolve. Instead of a poorly organised framework of construction activities, we want to see the delivery of the built environment through lean process thinking underpinned by top talent.

This article first appeared in The Scotsman. It can be viewed here.

Edinburgh Napier's School of Engineering and the Built Environment