The Merry Month: The need for diversity

My trip to Battersea Power Station was hosted by Sir Robert McAlpine. They have a Construction Management contract with the client to build several overlapping phases of new construction. There is a Frank Gehry-designed building, opposite a Foster+Partners hotel and residency.

The Gehry building is particularly challenging. The shape represents a crumpled piece of paper. Each part of the façade is unique and throws up challenges for fabrication and installation in equal measure.

The site is also challenging. An extension to the Northern line in one corner, the Power Station in the other, all being built or refurbished by other contractors with their own priorities and at the same time. You can count up to 20 overhead cranes on the site, which gives some idea of the enormity of the project.

The base-build contractors are working shifts up to 10 at night to drive the programme forward.

As construction manager, McAlpine is employed to manage a series of other contractors and specialist sub-contractors, including a vast mechanical and engineering contract.

We arrived on site in a torrential downpour. We were given an indoor presentation and by the time it was over it had stopped raining. We were led around the site in the late afternoon, just as proportionately large site task lighting started to take effect. It was magnificent. The base build was up to level three, but with water tightness impossible at this stage, access holes in the roof of each level cascaded with water, glittering in the artificial light.

Even more impressive was the agenda being set by McAlpine for diversity, inclusion and mental health in the day-to-day running of the site.

Mental health among the workforce of all contractors in McAlpine’s domain is a priority. Two dedicated health workers devised and led a programme of events and presentations that gave workers the opportunity to talk about their fears and feelings. These included a Chatty Café, which has been shortlisted for an international award.

The achievements on diversity and inclusion were less obvious. They had achieved a workforce that includes 20% women, although they acknowledged while this is a start, it is not enough. They didn’t discuss numbers of black, Asian and minority ethnic employees (BAME); nor LBGTQ+ workers; nor disabled staff.

Despite the lack of progress on diversity I was impressed with how a construction company is embracing this 21st century agenda and making me feel as if I was working in an industry that wants to make a difference.

I want us to start a conversation about diversity and inclusion in the stone industry. What are the numbers of women in our industry and how many are in management positions? How many BAME are employed and in which jobs? Do we employ disabled people or LGBTQ+ in our quarries, our factories, on our building sites, in our showrooms, and in our management teams? Do we encourage our industry to be diverse; to reflect the world around us? Or are we stuck with too many middle-aged white men in charge – like me – making decisions based on white middle-aged men’s experience.

I understand this is the norm for many of us and it is how our industry – indeed, our society – has evolved. But it is changing.

The business case for diversity is writ large. Companies and countries that encourage and embrace diversity are more successful, more innovative than their rivals. See Singapore as one example.

McAlpine is starting to face these issues. It is the first time I have come across a main contractor talking the talk and walking the walk; trying to make a real difference, not just appearing to do so.

We need to follow every other industry along this route – and fast. We can still maintain our positive and productive traditions but maybe it’s time to re-think those traditions that no longer work for us in the modern world.

Robert Merry, MCIOB, is an independent Stone Consultant. He ran his own stone company for 17 years before becoming first an independent project manager and now a consultant. He is also an expert witness in disputes regarding stone and stone contracts. 0207 502 6353 / 07771 997621. [email protected]