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Engineering value

Janet Miller

Strategic thinking can deliver more for less.

Over the last several months non-protected government departments and local authorities have been working hard to model how they would operate if their budgets were reduced by up to 40%. This is no enviable task and it will be interesting to see what their new world looks like after the Chancellor has presented the Comprehensive Spending Review in November.

It prompted me to think about how designers, engineers and project managers would approach the problem. In fact we do, perhaps not very often to the tune of 40%, but a large proportion of the projects we work on will need to be delivered for thousands or millions of pounds less than anticipated. We normally refer to it as value engineering.

The scope of a project could be seen as the easy place to start. Cut the scope and the costs should drop naturally because you would be delivering less for less. But doesn’t the well-trodden phrase state we should be “delivering more for less”? If engineering projects are routinely gold-plated, the efficiency challenge acts as a sensible test to make sure we’re only building what is required. However, I don’t believe this is the case, so cutting the scope or removing anything above basic functionality would most likely just lead to “no frills” cities, buildings and infrastructure. I don’t think any of us would like to live in a world stripped of character, identity or uniqueness. You only have to look at the infrastructure we’re delivering, take the re-generated Birmingham New Street station as an example, to know this is not the general approach we’re taking.

That must mean we’re also getting better at using technology, we’re working together more effectively, we’re tightening up processes, removing duplication and pushing the boundaries of conventional thinking to meet our efficiency challenges.

I’m sure many government departments and local authorities have included these approaches in the proposals they submitted to Treasury, but we should also expect some quick fixes, so things we thought were in the pipeline don’t happen, at least not as quickly as anticipated.

In some ways, I think this creates a more important role for the design and engineering community. Assuming the economy continues to grow and those items that were put on the back burner do go ahead at some point in the future, we need to make sure we are thinking long term and are making the right decisions now. This could be about getting as much value out of the initial investments as possible or not preventing or inhibiting future development.

This is where master planning comes in. We need to drive the thinking about the long term plan and outcomes, not just the immediate piece of work in front of us. Running scenarios will allow us to consider additional capacity or related developments which may be needed in the future so we can design the first phase accordingly and maximise value for those who use and fund our buildings and infrastructure.

I’m confident our industry has the skills and knowledge to make sure that financial constraints today don’t prevent us from shaping the world we want tomorrow.

  • Janet Miller is Atkins market director, cities and development

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