A Recent Article for Saint-Gobain Multicomfort

Why we need to change the narrative around construction – and how this could help fill the skills gap

I was recently asked to write an article for Saint-Gobain, and you can see it here Saint-Gobain Website

You can read the full text below

Everything in our lives is the built environment – where we live, work, learn, shop, get our entertainment. As well as the buildings we spend time in, it’s also the space in between these places – how we get from A to B and interact with the world around us.

The built environment has consequences – it impacts us all on a human cellular level and speaks to us on a sub-conscious level. It tells us who we are, where we’re going, what we deserve, and speaks clearly of the attitudes and values of the people that designed and created it in the first place.

But this notion around how the built environment can affect us on a psychological and physiological level isn’t part of the public’s conversation. It’s not something they feel they have a voice to contribute to – and this has to change.

Changing the narrative around construction and how we think of the built environment will help us to take the urgent action we need to improve our cities and towns for the benefit of our physical and mental health and wellbeing, our communities and the environment.

It’s also key in tackling the skills gap in the sector. Through my work, I spend time getting young people to consider a career in construction – something that isn’t a choice for many teenagers. Yet the opportunity and responsibility to be part of something that impacts our lives so profoundly is something I really want to encourage – and addressing the way we see and value our built environment is paramount to this.

We need to improve what we design and build

Winston Churchill once said “we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us” – and this is particularly relevant today. We need to design and construct better, smarter, more effective buildings and spaces. Not just buildings and spaces that look aesthetically pleasing, but that have purpose and move us forward collectively and individually.

The built environment impacts our thoughts – and my work in behavioural and environmental psychology has shown me that thoughts become feelings, feelings become behaviours. Because of this, the built environment indirectly impacts our behaviours and consequences. It impacts the choices and decisions we make, and therefore where we end up in life.

Thinking of the built environment in this way, you can start to see how it can help move us forward – or hold us back. The buildings and spaces around us help us to feel and experience, but also tells us where things are wrong.

Construction holds a unique position as a sector that supports social mobility through low academic barriers to entry, in a way that few other sectors still do, and additionally as the ‘producer’ of the housing, infrastructure, schools and environment that allow people to experience equal opportunities in life. The time for change is critical because the UK scores near the bottom for most measures of social mobility, compared with the world’s advanced nations.

The importance of space

No doubt we all know areas in our local towns or cities that have become abandoned, where retail units have closed, and there’s nothing to really see or do. We need to learn from these mistakes, look at why these locations didn’t work and find a way to design and create more flexible spaces.

One of the reasons why this is so important is around how we interact with people. Eye contact is a significant part of social activity and integration. Where we choose – or are forced – to assemble determines how we integrate with others.

By making sure spaces are flexible allows us to choose to integrate on a level we feel comfortable with. This creates life between buildings, which is such an important part of the built environment.

The mental impact of the built environment

One of the biggest challenges for the NHS at the moment is the rise in mental health problems – and the built environment has a role to play in this.

Our mental health is affected by so many different factors – everything from how isolated we are, to what we can see, hear and feel. There are studies to show how daylight, nature and views can help boost our mood and lift our spirits – things that can be integrated into our buildings and public spaces.

We need to also consider acoustics (link to https://multicomfort.saint-gobain.co.uk/how-to-achieve-acoustic-comfort-in-your-home/ ). If you can hear your neighbour’s every move through the walls – each time they put the TV on, boil the kettle or speak to their partner – this will soon start to take its toll. It’s the introduction of low level mental health problems.

Our buildings need to be up to the job of catering for our different needs of warmth, safety and comfort, but a lot of the houses and flats where we live today don’t meet the standards they should.

We need to make changes now

The way we live needs to change. We’re still driving short distances when we could cycle or walk. We’re using too much single-use plastic, producing too much waste, and polluting our environments.

By 2030, it’s estimated that we will need 50 per cent more food and 30 per cent more water. And 2030 is not that far away. If we’re to make sure we have enough resources in 10 or 20 years’ time, we need to act now. Cape Town’s current water crisis shows us just how quickly the unthinkable can become reality.

If we know we’re going to need more food and water, why aren’t we designing and constructing buildings to solve this problem? For example, we could have green walls and green walls so we can grow more food, and install rainwater harvesting devices to collect water.

Building a younger, more diverse workforce

We need to consider all of these points because they help us tap into the emotions behind why construction and the built environment is so important and how they hold the key to improving our lives, society and environment.

If we can use these emotions to communicate to young people and show them how they can be part of the change, this is one step in helping us to encourage young people to consider a career in construction.

And it’s not just young people we need to attract. We need to attract a diverse workforce. Construction is a male dominated sector, and our cities and towns are a reflection of that. But as well as encouraging more women into construction, we need to consider diversity in all its guises – values and priorities, culture and ethnicity.

We also need to embrace technology. Through virtual reality, gamification and 3D modelling, we have the opportunity to be more creative and work through problems, consequences and best approaches before we even start work on site. This means we don’t need to learn from our mistakes, as we have done in the past, we can get it right first time.

We need to all understand the value of our built environment and the impact it has on our daily lives. We need to make sure all of our voices are heard when it comes to decisions about the design and construction of buildings and spaces so that they stand for what we believe, our values and what we want out of life.

The decisions we make and the actions we take today are going to affect us for generations to come. So let’s make sure we’re thinking and acting wisely, and let us show young people how by shaping our built environment, they can help to shape our communities and lives for the better.