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The light fantastic

Neil Baxter believes a bright future is just around the corner for Scotland’s construction industry – and that recent advances in lighting have created an exciting time for contractors.

Neil Baxter, Chief Executive, Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS)

Advances in modern lighting and other technology have created the “most exciting period ever” for electrical contractors. That’s the view of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) Chief Executive Neil Baxter, who says Scotland’s construction industry is also facing a brighter future, despite uncertainty over Brexit and a second independence referendum.

Baxter also says he hopes the recent Cole Report will help tighten safety regulations across the industry. But it’s the world of modern technology that really sees his face light up as he explains why electrical contractors should be feeling positive.

He told CABLEtalk: “Technological change has already revolutionised the way people lead their lives, even in the short period that I’ve been around. Take one very specific example that will be close to every electrical contractor’s heart – lighting.

“Lighting design has become an important discipline of its own over the last 20-25 years and we’re currently at the most exciting and positive period ever, for both electrical contractors and architects. It’s indicative of the pace of technological change and perfectly reflects the breadth of what electricians do for a living.”

Neil gave just one example of where he has seen a huge sea-change in lighting and architecture, both in terms of quality and cost. He said: “The transition from sodium lighting and tungsten halogen to LED and other new technologies has undoubtedly created better quality environments. It improves our ability to light the exterior of buildings and enhances the quality of the night-time environment, both in the public domain and internally.

“Essentially we now have much more durable lighting with much better tonality, but at the same time the cost has come crashing down. We’re now at a point of fundamental change in how we light in our buildings – it can be done better, yet cheaper and more sustainably. Instead of short-term, where you change luminaires once a year, you now change them once a decade – or maybe longer. The duration and lifetime of new luminaires is just immense. In terms of quality and manufacturing, China is coming out with the most extraordinary stuff.”

Neil also welcomed the recent report by Professor John Cole into a collapsed wall at Oxgangs Primary School in Edinburgh in January 2016. The construction expert’s findings raised issues of “considerable significance” to the wider industry, and said that Oxgangs was one of a number of “avoidable incidents” at Scottish schools.

Baxter said: “The Cole Report is 272 pages of vital homework for commissioning bodies and everybody in the industry. It demonstrates that irrespective of what major contractors say, sometimes things do go wrong and we have a responsibility to ensure that buildings are attractive, durable and, above all, safe. Construction processes have to demonstrate that safety is central at every stage and safeguards need to be built in – and I think this bodes well for Scotland. It’s not something we should be afraid of and it doesn’t have to mean additional cost – it means additional care and returning to ideas of traditional procurement.

“It’s in everyone’s interest. After all, what electrical sub-contractor wouldn’t like to be paid a fair fee for the job, rather than competing with half a dozen of their peer group to squeeze costs down to the lowest conceivable level? That’s not healthy for anyone. Ultimately, good business is when people are paid a fair rate for a good job.”

He added: “Cole says the process of design and build self-certification hasn’t worked because the major contractor’s responsibility is to their shareholders and about maximising profit.

“Everybody needs to earn a living . But when the bottom line is the sole focus, it skews projects and becomes a problem.”


Baxter on Brexit

Baxter admits predicting the future of Scotland’s construction industry post-Brexit is impossible – but fears a drain of European talent could be a possibility.

He said: “Brexit has brought with it continuous uncertainty, which means the construction industry is now in a very strange hinterland. Things were on the up after the 2008 downturn and were starting to be positive if not exactly truly buoyant, but that’s slowed to a degree.

“Saying that, I don’t think Brexit is terminal and we’re moving in a positive direction, even though some developments won’t happen, and there will be a different focus on some aspects of the industry.

“The major concern is over the retention of European talent – professionals, contractors, sub-contractors, specialist contractors and electrical contractors. The sincere hope throughout the whole industry is that this talent will be allowed to stay with us.

“The free movement of European people and skills in the future is crystal ball gazing and I wouldn’t even attempt it. Nobody knows what’s going to happen – including Theresa May.”


Dazzling design

Baxter says one tiny product gives a perfect example of the advances in modern lighting technology. He revealed: “I always use a small clip-on spotlight to help with my public speaking. I bought one recently for £3.99, powered by three AA batteries.

“Whenever I’m asked to speak, it’s invariably in a dark corner of a dark room, so I can never see my notes. But instead, I now just clip on my mini-spot and I’ve got bright light where I want it – and all for £3.99.

“That’s the level of technological change we see around us every day; really simple things that are improving our quality of life and ability to do our jobs.”


Neil Baxter is Chief Executive, Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS).

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