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Construction as ecosystem: services instead of construction projects

Stagnation of residential construction because of carbon dioxide problems, canals and rivers polluted by PFAS: these are just two examples of challenges that the construction industry is presently dealing with. Although these problems appear to primarily affect construction businesses, it is the entire construction chain – from client to end user – which, together with the government, has to find a solution for this complex issue. In her inaugural oration of 21 November, Professor of Integrated Project Delivery Leentje Volker seeks a different set-up of the construction process. By focusing on values, she hopes that in the long run the construction business can be transformed into a circular services sector where the user is central. According to Leentje, we can achieve this by deploying our ‘human touch’ a bit more. 

Infrastructure is a general good that is intensively used. This makes every intervention part of a societal discussion. Traditionally speaking, when realising infrastructure – such as a road, a bridge, quay walls or train rails – many parties tend to be involved: architects, engineers, consultants, contractors, suppliers and maintenance companies. These parties are usually contracted individually per project for the services they will be providing. This causes fragmentation in the construction process. Nowadays integrated contracts are increasingly connecting the different construction phases. This shifts the roles and responsibilities in the construction process, which can benefit the construction’s productivity. This is however not enough to tackle the major future demand for circular construction activities. 

‘Construction has always been searching for the right mode of collaboration between the various parties in the construction chain. In the fragmented, more traditional construction processes the client pays as well as decides, which places both control and risks in the client’s hands. The introduction of integrated contracts has contributed to efficiency and innovation in construction, but cannot prevent risks from occurring. Now that we as a society will be having to deal with major maintenance tasks for our post-war infrastructure and are trying our very best to comply with climate agreements, we must structure the construction process differently,’ says Prof Volker. ‘Construction must gravitate towards large-scale programmes that are executed by a network of parties. Through joint investment in standardisation and digitalisation, contractors, developers, engineering firms and suppliers can scale things up and create more value for the client. This will benefit organisations such as the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management, ProRail, municipalities and provinces. Taking things a step further, these could be ecosystems in which public and private parties develop new services using new technologies in collaboration with knowledge institutions and individuals. These are solutions that will ensure, now and in the future, that we will always be able to get from A to B, are protected from flooding, and can have safe and clean drinking water.’ 

‘Working together requires us to get to know each other. What are someone’s motivations? What does someone value, and do they want to earn their living from it? If at the beginning of the process you have little joint attention for this, you will get stuck or create less value than you hoped. This necessitates more exploitation of the exploratory phase. I also believe that we can explore more deeply what can be accomplished within this collaboration – in other words, how we can create and establish even more value once we join together in the construction process. This requires that “human touch”, which is also a central principle of UT.’ 

Prof. Leentje Volker will give her oration on 21 November at 16:00 hours at M.P. Breedveld Hall, in the Waaier building of the Enschede UT campus. She is part of the Construction Management & Engineering group at the Department of Civil Engineering of the Faculty of Engineering Technology.

drs. J.G.M. van den Elshout (Janneke)
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