Asking the big questions

By - , Build 180

Suzanne Wilkinson, Professor of Construction Management and Associate Dean Research at Massey University, says COVID-19, as with other disasters, demands smart thinking about how the industry organises, procures and delivers.

Q. What led to your interest in construction management and then, specifically, to teaching in this field?

I did a civil engineering degree at Oxford Brookes University in the UK before deciding to do a PhD in construction management. Initially, I was interested in the management of people in the industry, and my research focused on the career choices of women in civil engineering. This was in the 1990s, and there were many poor stories of retention and access to construction for minority groups.

However, during my PhD I realised there were perennial problems within the industry that were of interest, and research might be able to provide some solutions. These were problems such as how to make improvements and move from a poor-quality, time and cost industry with low skills and poor uptake of innovation and technology to one that is creative, attractive, technologically advanced and has innovative processes.

At the end of my PhD, my husband and I travelled and ended up in New Zealand. I didn’t initially intend to become an academic – I wanted to build skyscrapers in New York. I fell into academic life as Unitec offered me a 2-year research contract to look at how the New Zealand industry was changing. This was followed by an opening at the University of Auckland to teach the construction management courses.

Q. Tell us about the research areas you focus on. What interests you about them, what are the critical issues and what is being done to meet them?

I began trying to understand how the construction industry operated, made decisions and was organised to construct. In the early 2000s, I was invited to work on national projects integrating construction industry processes with disaster recovery.

The main themes are how the construction industry can improve long-term disaster recovery outcomes, how the industry can build resilience and how the industry will help mitigate climate change impacts.

As an example, our research on Christchurch’s post-earthquake recovery helped inform best processes to use. Our Build Back Better research has been used all over the world to help communities, governments and agencies recover well from disasters.

Our work on resilience is helping towns and cities in New Zealand understand what they need to do to become resilient from multiple perspectives. Much of our work develops tools for use in industry, such as our resilient water infrastructure tool, resilient transport tool and Build Back Better tool.

Lately, I have become interested in two key areas. One is the zero-carbon programme at BRANZ where I am working to integrate some of our research into the work that BRANZ and others are doing. The other is on how the construction industry capacity and capability can manage the pipeline of work being proposed over the next 20 plus years. In both areas, there are lots of tricky problems for academics to help solve.

Q. The New Zealand built environment has faced significant challenges in recent years. What has been learned from this, and how well placed is our built environment to cope with similar events?

Research shows us that our industry is capable of surviving shocks and stresses. However, everyday resilience building needs to be incorporated into businesses, especially small and medium-sized businesses, and across the wider industry. Major events that damage large numbers of buildings and infrastructure create opportunities for our industry to showcase their ability to deal with a crisis.

Unfortunately, we don’t always learn from the past. For instance, we often fail to recognise that we will have skills shortages. Solutions include recruiting from overseas, relocating or upskilling people but we fail to provide the services required for people to contribute fully such as housing, training and support.

We are surprised at cost escalation, which happens in almost every disaster, and with that a reduction in quality – again a common under-stress industry response. We always underestimate how long recovery will take. This is very hard to predict but is almost always much longer than officials allow, and the rule of thumb is double official estimations at least. We do not always learn the lessons of international disaster recovery and apply them in a logical way.

With COVID-19, we are again seeing an industry put under considerable stress. The expected shovel-ready projects, infrastructure pipeline and Jobs for Nature will all require skilled and unskilled labour. Post-COVID-19 will require the industry to think smart about how it organises, procures and delivers.

The capacity and capability of the industry to deliver such a large programme of work is a worry. We can learn from past experience and from current research and practice.

I would like to see a combined evidence-based response where government, industry and universities work together to come up with smart solutions, especially in smart procurement, innovative and technologically advanced responses and good delivery options. I would also like to see more focus on using industry intelligence to genuinely improve wellbeing, build resilience and help reduce potential climate change impacts.

Note

Please contact Suzanne at s.wilkinson@massey.ac.nz if you are interested in collaborating with researchers at Massey University, School of Built Environment.

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