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All for the best

The 37 year old Construction Industry Research & Information Association is going through a major transformation. Dave Parker reports on what the changes really mean for the industry.

CIRIA, says director general Dr Peter Bransby, is neither a government agency, a research laboratory nor a trade association. 'Nor do we offer consultancy services, unlike the Building Services Research & Information Association, say, or the Building Research Establishment. We never work for a single client and we always publish all our findings.

'And we, in fact, don't get involved much in laboratory-based research. Our members now see more value in collating existing knowledge and experience to produce best practice guidance.'

This was not always the case. Three decades or so ago CIRIA did commission hard research into such unglamorous and neglected areas as concrete pressure on formwork and shutter striking times. And laboratory research has not been completely abandoned - one current project involving Imperial College and Taywood Engineering is investigating the influence of site curing on concrete durability - but this is now only a minor activity, Bransby confirms.

He goes on: 'Most research takes the form of literature searches, interviews, workshops, demonstration projects and the like. CIRIA staff do have considerable technical expertise, but all research is subcontracted out.'

So to promote itself purely as CIRIA and not as the Construction Industry Research & Information Association - although this remains its legal identity - does no more than reflect current reality, Bransby maintains. The new logo sums it up, he adds.

Independence is another key factor, according to Bransby. Although CIRIA's roots are very much around the corner in Great George Street, it now operates as 'a natural extension to and wholly complementary to ICE', developing the Institution's original role as a forum for the exchange of professional know- ledge.

Bransby sees this formulation of best practice through co-operation and communication as vital to the success of UK civil engineers on the world stage. He says: 'UK consultants especially now operate in a world where it can be cheaper to use engineers in India to do routine calculations. So they can only compete on expertise and depth of knowledge - the sort of knowledge CIRIA produces.'

CIRIA staff's main role is to identify the need for a particular piece of research, organise funds and commission the work. The underlying principle is that projects 'are chosen and controlled by practitioners'. Rarely are academics employed as lead research contractors, Bransby says. 'It's our experience that civil engineering consultants make the best lead contractors - but academics can make a valuable contribution as junior members of a research consortium.'

Such consortia, usually involving a civils or building contractor, are becoming more common, he adds. But whoever the research contractor may be, its activities will always be monitored by a project steering group of 12 to 20 industry representatives. Around 1,000 people from industry are directly involved in CIRIA's activities, Bransby calculates, with 60 or so projects currently in hand, plus the permanent programme advisory committees.

'There's always a certain amount of excitement when people with different interests are working together on a project, especially when they all have to sign up to the report's conclusions before it can be published,' he says. 'But I believe this is why CIRIA reports are so well regarded, because they are seen as coming from the industry itself and reflecting the industry's concerns, rather than being imposed from outside.'

CIRIA chairman Kay Johnson goes further. 'It's the collaborative nature of CIRIA's work that is the basis of the support we get from Government,' he asserts.

'And the sheer quality of our reports, of course. Our relationship with the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions is particularly strong.'

Johnson believes CIRIA should build on its reputation to become a high profile proactive organisation. 'Historically, we have simply reacted to members' requests - to formulate a response to new government legislation, for example.

'I would like to see us involved before the legislation is framed, guiding and advising the civil servants involved in the best interests of the whole industry.'

Collaboration, Johnson accepts, is not to everyone's taste. 'To some people collaboration means losing market edge,' he says. Bransby asks those people to consider a current CIRIA project on managing technical excellence in design organisations. 'We have 12 leading design organisations sitting around a table exchanging information on their internal procedures and processes, discussing recruitment and training.

'Considering these are all among the top names in the construction, it's amazing how open and transparent they've been.'

Johnson sees a broadening of CIRIA's member base as crucial to the higher profile he seeks. 'The construction industry as a whole is too inward- looking,' he says. 'It's always engineers talking to engineers.

'With the advent of things like the Private Finance Initiative, roles are changing. CIRIA needs representatives from the legal profession, banks, insurance companies and so on if it is to reflect the new reality.'

This is another medium term objective, already in hand, Johnson says. Others include better links with European and other international information networks. Bransby adds: 'Until recently the focus has been very much on the UK.

'We have tried to bring in overseas expertise - we have formal links with similar organisations in Holland, the US and South Korea, for example - but we face a logistical problem in getting people in from abroad to attend meetings regularly.'

In the shorter term, however, CIRIA is still absorbing the impacts of the major structural reorganisation which took place last year. A new management team oversees six business centres: water, environment, process, technology, commercial services and publishing. New internal IT networks will speed the report production process. And electronic publishing is becoming a more significant factor, Bransby says.

Last year CIRIA's turnover topped pounds2.7M. New project starts totalled 22, 41 new publications hit the bookshelves, and no less than 75 events were held under the CIRIA banner. This year staff numbers are up from 41 to 47, 33 publications were launched in the first six months to take the total in print to more than 800, and events in 1998 will be up 15 to 90. Turnover is expected to be around pounds3.2M

'We're bigger than ever with the largest, most comprehensive research programme we've ever had,' Bransby says. 'And I'm confident we'll continue to grow, because we're uniquely placed to give the construction industry a lead in the sort of collaborative effort it needs to succeed.'

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