Valuing the human element in construction

Two issues at different ends of the sustainability spectrum – people and carbon – will influence how we build in 2018, says Multiplex chief executive officer John Flecker.

Flecker (pictured, right) will be joining other industry influencers at Green Cities in March to share his insights in the ‘Lessons from the leaders’ session.

“At one end of the spectrum, there has been an uptick in our focus on health and wellbeing,” Flecker says, pointing to trends including WELL ratings, productivity surveys and sensors.

“There is certainly a lot more emphasis on building performance and the impact that design has on occupants.”

Carbon sits on the other end of the spectrum, Flecker says, after being off the boil for some time. The cost of energy, the increasing affordability of solar and batteries, and global drivers like the Paris Agreement are all influencing the market.

Digitisation, building information modelling (BIM) and 3D printing, prefabrication, offsite and modular construction will all help the industry to cut its carbon emissions, but Flecker says these innovations won’t necessarily be the great disruptors some analysts are predicting.

“You can’t ignore digitisation and how that may impact our construction supply chains,” he says.

“All of these things require different interactions with a supply chain which ultimately requires a management team to build. I don’t think it’s a revolution – it’s an evolution in the way we work.”

Flecker says BIM can sometimes be “overexaggerated” in terms of its impact.

“BIM and 3D printing can do great things, but they really only allow us to draw and build things that were difficult to do before. Unusual shapes may be more exotic, but it doesn’t mean they are cheaper, better or more useful.”

Flecker, a director with the Green Building Council of Australia, commenced his career with Multiplex as a cadet site engineer in 1987 and has since risen through the ranks to be appointed chief executive officer in 2011.

He says the industry’s understanding of ‘social sustainability’ – the people end of the sustainability spectrum – has grown rapidly in recent years. Social media has increased the information flows exponentially and “everyone knows what others are doing”.

This is delivering great outcomes for people, as the industry looks for new ways to deliver greater social outcomes in the community.

Flecker points to a partnership between Multiplex and Stockland, which matches local job seekers with employment opportunities on large construction projects.

These Connectivity Centres allow “anyone in the community to find out what jobs we have available during and after construction”, and help bridge skills gaps with candidate screening, training and job-matching.

“The job may finish but we leave the region with higher skilled people.”

The success of the Connectivity Centres has seen Multiplex expand the concept more broadly across its projects, including the upcoming Westmead Redevelopment in Western Sydney.

Multiplex is also a founding partner of the Literacy for Life Foundation, a charity that trains Aboriginal people to bring literacy to their communities.

“We play an important role in Indigenous employment on building sites, but there are only so many trained Indigenous carpenters and everyone is drawing them from the same pool. We see this partnership as a holistic approach that meets our procurement requirements and delivers a bigger long-term impact.”

Multiplex was also the originator of the concept of ‘sustainable site sheds’, and worked with the Green Building Council of Australia over several years to evolve the concept.

“We were working on high-performance buildings like 1 Shelley Street, and acknowledged it was a sensible business decision to spend a bit more money to have a happy and productive workforce.

“One of my executives asked the question: why did we have our employees sitting in a damp, cold and leaky site shed while we were building these high-performance buildings? It was a contradiction.”

Today, Multiplex provides high performance site accommodation across its projects. The Australian Contractors Association has “come on board and it’s now an industry-wide practice”.

Multiplex employees working on the Westmead hospital site were recently asked to design their site sheds themselves.

“In the old days, we would have said ‘here are a few site huts, off you go’, but this process created a wonderful engagement with the staff. It was magic.”

Flecker’s advice to the industry is simple: don’t ignore the human element of construction.

“In our current environment, young people are so digitally aware, but I think that makes communication, interpersonal skills and team engagement more important than ever before. It is very easy to be disconnected personally if you are highly-connected digitally.”

“Putting a project together is about managing a whole bunch of people – even if part of it is built with higher technology. It still needs coordination with people to make it happen.”

John Flecker will be joined by Lendlease's Kylie Rampa, Mirvac's Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz, and Rod Fehring from Frasers Property Australia in the 'Lessons from the leaders' session at Green Cities, to be held in Melbourne from 13-15 March. Book your ticket today.