Prof.dr.ir. J.W.F. Wamelink
Professor of Construction Management and Entrepreneurship
Department of Management in the Built Environment
How do you organise a construction project? That question is what the chair in Construction Management and Entrepreneurship is all about. Circular building, information technology, robotisation and integrated contracts are all bringing about major changes in his specialist field, according to Professor Hans Wamelink.
Until just twenty years ago, developing major infrastructure and large public buildings was purely the business of government agencies and public bodies. Municipalities, the Central Government Real Estate Agency and the Directorate-General for Public Works and Water Management instructed their engineers to come up with a design and construction companies could tender for the work. This approach underwent a radical overhaul and was replaced by integrated contracts. In the new system, construction companies or consortia are completely responsible for design and construction – and often even finance and maintenance. This has brought about a totally new way of organising major construction projects. “The idea is that if you make a single party responsible, it will start thinking about a design that’s smarter and easier to maintain at a very early stage in the process,” explains Hans Wamelink. “For buildings in particular, this now seems to be working quite well.”
But for major infrastructure projects, the new approach turned out to be even more complicated – sometimes too complicated. Construction companies have encountered problems on major works like the restructuring of the A15 motorway, the new Botlek Bridge and the construction of Amsterdam’s Zuidasdok. “We clearly haven’t found the silver bullet quite yet,” says Wamelink. “There are still further challenges to face.” Integrated contracts brought about a new reality. It calls on everyone involved – commissioning authorities, construction companies, designers – to be extremely transparent towards each other, especially when it comes to sharing risk. That can sometimes be more difficult than expected. Commissioning authorities seem far too willing to place the entire risk of highly complex projects in the hands of the contractors. On the other hand, construction companies sometimes find it difficult to admit when they are not suitable for the job, according to the Professor of Construction Management and Entrepreneurship. That certainly was the case during the economic crisis: “It doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with these innovative types of contracts, but that you need to make a greater effort to raise the issue of the risks that are involved. This is something you need to do together.” His chair is researching how this can be improved, and also which type of organisation or form of collaboration is most suitable for which project.
Wamelink also envisages rapid changes in how projects are organised in residential construction. Construction defects and delays cost billions of euros every year. This raises the question of whether there needs to be a radical change to how construction is done. Should we start constructing buildings in the same way as we manufacture industrial products? This sounds attractive in practice, because a house built from a construction kit can be assembled more quickly, cheaply and with less manpower and in principle is easy to perfect. It seems ideal for the current situation in construction. But there is also the question of whether there is really consumer demand for an extremely standardised home that is completely different from a traditional house made of bricks and mortar.
The good news is that advances in information technology are making it increasingly easy to tailor standardised solutions to individual customers. Using Building Information Modelling (BIM), you can construct a building virtually in advance and robots and computer-controlled milling machines can help in the optimisation process – resulting in ‘customised industrialisation’. It is even possible to use a 3D model to arrange the increasingly complex logistics of construction projects. So where is all this leading? Perhaps there will ultimately no longer be a need for contractors, because construction products can be put in place directly by the supplier.
Will there still be a role for architects? On that subject, Wamelink set up the high-profile top-sector FuturA (future value chains of architectural services) research project, taking a close look at the new revenue and organisation models for architects. The large intermediate group of designers in particular will need to continue to engage in some flexible manoeuvring in order to survive in the new reality.
All the links in the chain
A major challenge that Wamelink faces is the further optimisation of the construction chain. He believes this will also improve the end product. “As I see it, optimisation can only succeed if it benefits all of the links in the chain,” says Wamelink. “You may be able to make things better, faster and more cheaply, but the people who make them also need to earn money from them.”
This is not made any easier by the discussions in society, on the issue of circular building, for example. This calls for architects to design in such a way that buildings and infrastructure can be taken apart again at the end of their life cycle. For contractors, it calls for a willingness to reuse existing construction materials. But the main question is what they have to gain – in financial terms – by doing that. It may also simply become just too complicated to make a living in that way. Wamelink is convinced that there is no chance of success unless the entire chain can benefit. “You therefore need to get to the bottom of how all the links in the chain will react to these changes and how you can influence that. If that proves possible, we will take a major leap forward.”
As an extension to all of this, Wamelink now intends to use his chair to focus on ‘entrepreneurial education’. The aim is to encourage graduates from the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment to set up their own companies. These young graduates are often brimming with ideas about how we can build better, more smartly and more cheaply, but lack the wherewithal to set up their own businesses. The elective course on entrepreneurship in architecture and the built environment, to be offered from February 2020, will help give them that.
An incubator is also soon set to launch that will link up these students with entrepreneurial ideas with the faculty network. This could help boost innovation in the sector.
Hans Wamelink studied Civil Engineering at the Faculty of Civil Engineering and Geosciences (CEG), obtaining his doctorate in 1993 with research into production control in the construction industry. He then spent more than a decade as a researcher in the Faculty of Technology Management in Eindhoven. In 2006, he returned to TU Delft to become Professor of Design and Construction Management.
Alongside his research, Wamelink has plenty of practical construction experience. He founded and spent twenty years as the director of the Infocus construction management and consultancy business. After that, he was a senior consultant at Royal HaskoningDHV. He has also served as an adviser to the Dutch Green Building Council (2010-2016) and to the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ Public Procurement Expertise Centre.