Leentje Volker advocates a human touch in the construction sector
According to professor Leentje Volker, making the Dutch construction sector future proof will require a paradigm shift. She has held the Integrated Project Delivery chair at the UT since 2019. The message of her oration, entitled ‘Just a little of that human touch’, ties in perfectly with the UT's own adage: high tech, human touch. In Volker's work, it is also about the interaction between people and technology. After all, she says, construction is human work.
Volker's Integrated Project Delivery chair is part of the UT's Construction Management & Engineering group. This group’s research and education are centred around improving integration and innovation during the construction process. In particular, Volker's work focuses on infrastructural projects, such as the construction and maintenance of railroads, roads and waterworks. According to Volker, innovation and integration are of major importance in this sector, because there are some major challenges to overcome.
‘Shortly after the Second World War, there was a ton of construction activity all over Europe, especially with regard to infrastructure. These projects are now starting to reach the end of their technical lifespan. That means we have a lot of replacement and renovation to do. We have to combine this stream of activities with other challenges and ambitions such as the nitrogen problem, PFAS, CO2 reduction and the ambition to realise a circular economy.’
Volker believes the knowledge of an integrated construction process, her area of expertise, can contribute to a possible solution. At the moment, virtually all new construction projects involve an unnecessary repetition of previous moves, the professor states. ‘Take the process of building a new bridge, for example. In a project like that, each part of the process is the responsibility of a different party, e.g. the engineer, the contractor, the painter, etcetera. This results in a highly fragmented construction process. Furthermore, the parties are no longer involved in the future maintenance of the bridge once its construction is complete.’
‘Instead, I advocate a combination of vertical and horizontal integration, which has different parties in an ecosystem construct or repair ten or so similar bridges. The parties combine their strengths for a larger number of similar projects. This ecosystem will continue to be responsible for the maintenance of the bridge as a community. Basically, it is about redefining the roles and responsibilities in the construction chain.’
‘To realise this, we have to adopt ‘service thinking.’ We have to ask ourselves why we want to build a bridge. What service are we providing to the users of the bridge? In a fragmented construction process, it is all too easy to lose sight of that aspect. What societal purpose does the construction project serve? For a bridge, the service is about granting as many vehicles and passengers as possible a safe crossing from point A to point B. In an integrated construction process, all parties in the value chain are responsible together for providing this service.’
In today's construction sector, parties are often ‘done’ after successfully delivering their part of the construction chain, Volker says. They perfect their small part of the chain, without taking any responsibility for the project as a whole or the rest of its lifespan. ‘Consequently, there is little focus on research and knowledge exchange in the construction sector. It is completely different from e.g. the pharmaceutical industry, where billions are spent on research and development.’
‘In the construction sector, the focus is on 'doing what needs to be done,’ preferably as quickly as possible. It is a no-nonsense sector where it is better to start a project today than tomorrow. As a result, however, virtually all construction projects involve too many risks and you often hear about the excessive costs. To overcome the challenges that plague today's construction sector, we must think more about what we actually need and how we intend to do that this time. Can we use the same method as before or would it be better to use a different approach? It is critical that we learn more from past construction projects. At the moment, too much knowledge is lost as a result of the fragmentation.’
According to Volker, parties in the construction sector must start to work together in ‘value-based ecosystems.’ Only then will it be possible to provide the integrated infrastructural services. ‘In the ecosystem, each party contributes what it is best at. This results in a multitude of different values. To properly coordinate these values in the long run and bring the parties closer together, human interaction is paramount; the human touch. In a construction process, there the different parties must sincerely understand each other. That is the only way to achieve collaboration and shared responsibility. As mentioned, construction is human work.’
Leentje Volker (Arnhem, 1978) grew up in Wageningen and studied Techniek en Maatschappij (Technology and Society) at the Department of Industrial Engineering & Innovation Sciences at Eindhoven University of Technology. In 2003, she started working as a researcher and project manager at the Center for People and Building in Delft. In 2005, Volker joined the group of Design and Construction Management of the department of Management in the Built Environment (Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, Delft University of Technology) to start her PhD project on decision-making processes in EU tenders for architectural services. In 2010, she finished her PhD research entitled ‘Deciding about Design Quality’. Volker continued her career as a postdoctoral researcher in Infrastructure Asset Management at the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management at the TU Delft and became an Associate Professor of Public Commissioning in 2016 at that same university. In 2019, she joined the UT as a full professor of Integrated Project Delivery at the Department of Civil Engineering Technology of the Faculty of Engineering Technology. At the UT, she teaches BSc and MSc students about contracting and procurement processes, creating and safeguarding public values in organizations and managing complex infrastructure projects and processes. As a professor, she also supervises a group of PhDs working on their doctoral theses.