Nick Bradley is special projects manager at Beard, an award-winning, family-owned construction firm which operates across the south of England.
Big-ticket, multi-million pound building projects will always grab the headlines. And rightly so.
But there is another vital element of building work going on in many large construction companies which I think deserves wider recognition.
I’m talking about special projects – refurbishment and alteration works which are often unsung and unheralded but add up to significant proportions of the revenue of many construction companies, however large.
The latest figures from the Building Cost Information Service show that non-housing repair and maintenance work is worth £29bn a year to our sector. A further £35bn a year is spent on housing repair and maintenance. Big numbers.
But special projects are about more than revenue. These works are the pillars upon which headline projects are supported, the financial bread-and-butter which helps to keep construction companies profitable, enhances their reputations, develops their relationships with customers and, because of their number, boosts their profiles locally.
I think there’s never been a better time to recognise the value of this work, particularly as the UK heads into a recession.
I should know, because I’ve been running the special projects team at Beard Construction’s Oxford office for 33 years.
When I set up the team in 1990, it was just me and five craftsmen and we carried out work which added up to about £500,000. Today, the team is 20-strong and, last year, we generated more than £10m of revenue.
As talk of a recession and a stuttering economy starts to stifle construction output, special projects are there to take up some of the slack. While investment tightens on big-value, prestige jobs, more money will be spent on improving and maintaining current stock.
The ONS’ construction output figures for the last quarter of 2022 show that the sector is already beginning to see this shift. While new commercial work saw the slightest of quarter-on-quarter growth at 0.7 percent, non-housing repair and maintenance saw a 5.4 per cent increase over the same period.
That adjustment chimes with my own experience. The beginning of the year is usually a quieter time for special projects. But 2023 has been the busiest start to a year that I can remember.
Relationships that bloom
They might not have the glitz and glamour of huge developments, but special projects bring their own challenges. Timescales are often tight, briefs are often approximate. But this also means they encourage a more flexible and informal relationship with customers, demanding closer collaboration to find solutions as projects progress. And these working relationships can often blossom into bigger contracts.
Different construction firms will specialise in different repair and maintenance expertise. In our case, a lot of our special-project work is in the scholastic field maintaining Oxford’s colleges, university and other educational establishments. For example, we’re currently working to restore the exterior of Oxford’s landmark Clarendon Building, removing and restoring the lead statues which adorn its roof, repairing and redecorating its original windows and refurbishing its distinctive Oxford stonework.
And special projects do win awards, despite getting less exposure. For example, our work in Oxfordshire has been recognised quite a few times by the Oxford Preservation Trust and CIOB Awards.
In short, they play a key role in broadening and enriching the spectrum of work that construction companies can offer. They help to keep us connected and get us noticed in our communities and the relationships they foster can be a springboard to bigger projects.
But, perhaps most importantly, the sum total of the revenues they generate is often greater than the individual big-ticket projects which overshadow them.
And that financial contribution is likely to become even more key as the year progresses and those big construction projects are harder to come by.