Thousands of jobs will go as technology transforms the building trade. But, far from easing the skills crisis, shortages will be as acute as graduates replace brickies. Martin Whittaker reports
The building site of the future will be far removed from traditional scenes, according to a Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) report. By 2020, specialised robots will be "assembling a facility" - people won't even speak of building anymore - and most of the construction work will be done in factories, with prefabricated sections assembled on site.
Satellites will increasingly be used for surveying sites. Intelligent robots will carry out repetitive tasks such as driving in nails, and bearing heavy loads. People who are to live in the new building will have been on a tour even before construction began, thanks to virtual reality. And buildings will be increasingly "smart", with inhabitants able to control the environment with the sound of a voice or recognition of a palmprint.
This may well sound like science fiction, but it's not. The CITB's report, Construction - A 2020 Vision, says: "Almost all the technologies that will dominate our lives in 2020 have already been invented. The trick in forecasting the future is picking which technologies will grow to be important." The report describes an industry on the very edge of technological change.
However, a lack of investment in research and development means that if it does not get its act together, there will be stiff competition from abroad, the report warns. The industry "seems to be transfixed by its current problems and unable to look to the future".
The new Bluewater Park development in Dartford, Kent, on the opposite side of the Thames to Lakeside, is Europe's biggest out-of-town shopping centre. The project was entirely paperless, with more than 100,000 different drawings passed-on using information technology. Participants held meetings by video conference, and even the financial side was automated, with payments going to contractors via electronic banking.
Ray Crotty, an information technology specialist, managed the IT strategy for Bluewater Park. He believes innovations such as virtual reality and communications technology are about to have a massive impact on the construction industry.
"The implications of some of the advanced technologies we're beginning to use are that they will do to construction what desktop publishing did to the printing business.
So, are the education sectors and the industry's training bodies geared up for these changes? Crotty is unequivocal. "No," he says. "They're ignoring it. The nature of the change hasn't been properly discussed within the industry yet and so there's no body of thought about it."
Denis Chamberlain, head of the Construction Robotics Unit at City University, says: "We are finding that more and more companies are willing to sponsor undergraduates. However, on a national basis there are not enough high calibre people coming forward. The changing technology demands this.
"At school level the industry needs to become more involved so that a clearer and more accurate image of the industry is projected. Pupils with a high aptitude in mathematics and physics should be encouraged to learn about the industry as a career area."
A walkway between Lambeth College and South Bank University has reopened, trumpeting a new partnership which is designed to boost skills in the construction industry. For many years the corridor connecting the two sites was blocked off. Now the two institutions - which once formed the Brixton School of Building, founded in 1904 - have reunited to launch the new London Centre for the Built Environment.
Integral to it is an information technology centre of excellence funded by the Government Office for London, aimed at raising new technology skills in the building industry.
Professor Gerald Bernbaum, vice-chancellor of South Bank University, says:
"The point is ultimately to broaden the use if IT in the local community for individuals and for small and medium sized businesses."
Professor Rodney Howes, head of South Bank University's school of construction, said the new initiative was aiming to bridge the skills gap. "It's one thing to know how to use a software package. It's quite another to really derive benefit from that in the workplace."
On the Lambeth College site, all craft students get experience in word processing and spreadsheets, and they have the chance to take an evening course in computer-aided design.
In the college's labyrinthine construction workshops, the contrast to that new IT facility couldn't be greater. Here students are training in traditional building crafts such as carpentry and bricklaying, as well as the more specialist skills of stone masonry and stained glass.