“You can tell how good a job has been when you look at it again years later.”

Welcome to "Builders Who Care", a series of interviews with construction leaders driving innovation in their field. These builders are committed to their craft and to positively impacting the communities they serve. From implementing sustainable building practices to deploying cutting-edge technology, these individuals are leading the charge in creating a brighter future for the construction industry.


Disperse interviews Phil Langton, Technical Director for Sir Robert McAlpine in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. We talk to Phil about many things, but chiefly – to catch it in a word – about how important it is to be empathetic to others. Not just for the humanity of it, but why it leads to better outcomes in construction, as well.

Born to build

Disperse: Phil, can you tell us a little about your career trajectory and what got you started with building in the first place?

Phil: I always wanted to build. Even as a child, I was inclined that way. I was always building things with Lego and Meccano. Later at school, I leaned toward more exact subjects like maths.

When I got older, I developed a desire to be a bricklayer. And I just wanted to get out there and earn some money. That was around when I was fourteen to sixteen.

But one day, my dad took me aside and said, it's all good and well that you want to lay bricks, but how about you go into management? How about going away and studying? And if it's construction that you want to do, at least you'll get the opportunity of doing lots and lots of different things to do with the built environment.

So I said, OK, I like the sound of that. And that put me on the path of studying civil engineering. I went to Nottingham Trent, which at the time was a Polytechnic, and did what is called a 'thick sandwich' course there. It meant that in addition to studying, there was a long-term placement. I applied at Sir Robert McAlpine, the company I am still with today.

That first job was at Sellafield nuclear facility, which at the time was one of the largest projects happening in the UK, and today, I believe it's still the largest nuclear plant in Europe.

When I first showed up on the job, I was terrified. Many of the guys were rather brusque looking, and I was a 21-year-old lad fresh out of uni. But I soon got into the buzz of it and discovered that even though those guys might look quite intimidating, they were actually quite eager to tell me what they were doing.

After I graduated, I wanted to go back to Sir Robert McAlpine. Little did I know that I would not be going back to Sellafield. Instead, they sent me to the Northeast to help build the Nissan manufacturing plant near Sunderland. I've stayed up here in the Northeast ever since.

As for my career trajectory, I've moved up the ranks from engineer to more of a management role and I started to manage my own projects when I was in my early 30s.

After a while, I got a lucky break when they asked me to become Regional Chief Engineer. That was about 15 years ago. So, by and large, I've spent my career at Sir Robert McAlpine.

There was a short stint in my mid to late thirties when I decided to work for a small subcontractor. I soon discovered that I craved the security that a large national employer with its many departments and extensive support services. I like the guarantee that you'll get paid at the end of the month and as SRM have been around for more than 150 years, they are a well-respected company in the field of construction and engineering.

But l must confess, working for the small subcontractor taught me a lot about how the supply chain operates and the experience helped me understand the pressures they're under.  

Rewarding variety

Disperse: What excites you about your role today?

Phil: The variability. I have seen things change a lot in the industry, from health and safety to sustainability, to how we look to be more resourceful with our materials and the way we work.

A large part of my role focusses on legacy projects, investigating issues that often present way beyond the time when the build has finished. This is never straightforward, and it entails looking problems in the eye, not running away from them. This often requires speaking with the people who were active during the time they were built. That is why accurate as-installed records are so important.

So I meet many different people, and I'm always dealing with different challenges. I love that about my job; it's rewarding.

You don’t need to have all the answers

Disperse: What was your biggest learning?

Phil: When I came from academia, I thought I always needed to know everything. But I learned from one of my colleagues that that wasn't necessary, and that's an essential lesson for budding engineers anywhere.

He said: you're not expected to know all the answers. You can go back to your office and figure it out. Then, of course, you do have the obligation and get back to the people that need to know.

Disperse: Can you tell us about the time you worked for the smaller contractor?

Phil: It was around a time I was between projects, and I felt my career was getting a bit stale. I think I had become disillusioned with things for a bit. I was keen to get onto a live project and the waiting was a bit frustrating.

When I decided to go, it was a big gamble. I had two young children at the time, so to actually do that, to leave SRM to go to a subcontractor, caused me a lot of sleepless nights.

Once there, I realised I craved security, the support services McAlpine could offer, legal services, contract services, etc. It just makes things so much less complicated when you know you've got all these different departments to fall back on.

In the new situation with the subcontractor, I was supposed to have an answer for everything, and I was entirely out of my depth. So after 14 months I decided to return to SRM and found a renewed appreciation of working in such a supportive context, not to mention the security of getting paid at the end of the month.

Records are vital

Disperse: Can you take us through your day?

Phil: Sure. My title is Technical Director for what we call the northern business unit. This includes northern England & Scotland. My day is often spent dealing with legacy projects where things maybe haven't been quite right. I sometimes feel I would have been better off being a private investigator because that's what the job is like a lot of the time.

Often I have to go back into a project and find out what happened perhaps ten years ago. Many staff have moved on, and the ones still with us often struggle to remember. The main thing is to look at all possibilities and keep an open mind. It is far too easy to jump to conclusions without knowing all the facts.

Incidentally, this is also the part where we got interested in Disperse as a photo documentation solution. Records are vital and photos don’t lie. You only know how important those things could be once you have to go back in time to try and understand what happened.

Problems are widespread and range from cracked glazing to loose cladding on a building facade. And there is always a reason for it. My job is to get to the truth, then once we know what caused it, we can take steps to correct it.

Another part of my job is training, particularly our younger engineers. I suppose it's pastoral care to ensure they are developing the right skills. To make sure that they understand what the future holds for them and to make sure they are doing the right things now. Building a career can be quite daunting so I try to advise them where possible to make sure they stay enthused and get the right opportunities in the workplace.

The training is the part I really love. I like to share the knowledge I've built up over the years with others. Because sometimes, the unexpected does happen, and we need to understand how to deal with that.

Youngsters coming into the business need to be happy as the pressures later in their careers can be quite hard. I want them to keep the passion and deal with unexpected events professionally and to their best efforts.

I also listen to them a lot. Sometimes we forget that listening to other people's problems is a big part of the job. It isn't all about reading emails.

Treat the first day of the project as if it were the last

Disperse: Can you elaborate on how you help the next generations succeed?

Phil: I believe that everyone is trying their best under the circumstances. Nobody gets up in the morning to do a lousy job.

But when we overstretch people, errors get made from time to time. I try to demonstrate to them that they are not alone in this and that we can learn from the past.

They've got to concentrate on the fundamentals, the things that really hurt us if we get them wrong. So when I teach, I put up pictures of things that have gone wrong, the consequences, and how much it costs to put it right.

The past has a habit of catching up with us. My job is to say that cutting corners isn't worth it. It takes a certain consciousness to put your hand up and say, 'We should put this right, right now,' even if it costs more today.

What complicates matters is that builders today are under such pressure to deliver to a target date. Our focus can get cloudy. We get hung up too much on the programme. When everybody's rushing to get finished, errors are going to get made.

I always tell people to treat the first day of the project as if it were the last day of the project. You see, at the end; when things need to get finished, there is much more of a sense of urgency and it is great to see everyone working together. It's hard, but given the pressures of building today, it's the only approach you can take.

Disperse: What else is challenging about today's building environment?

Phil: Without a doubt, it's communication. We spend so much time working in silos that we don't make enough effort to collaborate to ensure we are all pulling in the same direction. Individually everybody is trying their best, of course. But things tend to break down, especially on really large projects. Medium projects are much easier in that regard.

We all looked out for each other

Disperse: Which project are you most proud of and why?

Phil: There are two of them. The first was when the University of Northumbria wanted a new flagship project to attract international students, and we built what came to be known as City Campus East, a real futuristic-looking building.

When I drive past this project, I always get a nice feeling. That's a telltale sign. You can tell how good a job has been when you look at it again years later.

The other job was at the Music and Performing Arts Building for Newcastle College. I was an engineer on that job. That was also a building that was going to be used by thousands and thousands of people. We worked with a very renowned architect, and it was technically very challenging.

It's the kind of project that I always aspired to run myself. It was because of the team. Everybody worked together, everybody was each other's friend, and you don't get that often in construction. We all looked out for each other and covered one another. And the job was a huge success: it was finished on time without any significant hitches and I cannot recall ever being called back to it.

Disperse: What are the most critical professional and personal skills that people wanting to enter the industry as a project person should have?

Phil: To be prepared not to accept the ordinary. By that, I mean don't just accept what people tell you. Be prepared to ask why, to quiz people. Not in an aggressive way, but asking why things are being done the way they are. It might be great to do something this way, but there might be an even better way that nobody has looked at yet.

Also important: to be able to speak to people on-site and gain their trust. As I said, you don't need to have all the answers up front, but you do need to come back to that person and not forget about them. And even if you haven't got an answer for them, at least give them an update.

Try to overcome the barriers so it is not an ongoing management versus operatives type of relationship. It really has to be one team. And the same should be said for the supply chain because, in the end, we are all putting up the same building.

And finally, honesty and integrity. If you've made a mistake, it's better to admit it. After all, there is every chance that you won't make that mistake again. But at least you are humble enough to say: I could have done that better.

Dealing with mistakes

Disperse: How do you deal with that as a boss when somebody says they've made a mistake?

Phil: my view is you got to put your arms around them. I've got sons of my own. I see how they worry about things that shouldn't concern them in modern life. If someone comes to my door and wants to talk about something that is wrong, it has usually taken a great deal of courage.

What I can't accept is people that just shrug their shoulders and think that it's OK to go out and do the same thing again and again. That is ignorant and wasteful.

Disperse: What do you see as the industry's biggest challenges at the moment?

Phil: the industry's got a real problem. It's not seen as attractive enough for youngsters to come in. Kids these days are misinformed about what construction is about. We get lots of invitations from schools to talk to youngsters about our industry, but you can tell that at a certain age, they just don't have the interest.

There's also a problem with people going into trades. I think the way apprenticeships are taught in the UK  needs an overhaul. The education centres just haven't quite gotten on board with providing the right courses.

As an employer, we pay a fortune into the apprenticeship levy. But we can't find the relevant courses to put our people on so as to train them. And that's a problem. Because on top of that, we've got an ageing workforce. Skilled people these days tend to be from a certain era.

The apprenticeship route should be made more attractive because it is attractive. You're earning, you're going to college, you're getting your fees paid for, and in five years you're a professional. But in the UK, there is still this perception that the only way to succeed is through university. That needs to change.

Disperse: Thanks so much, Phil, for your insights and warmth. We are glad we asked you for the Builders Who Care series. You embody the theme like no other!

Phil: Thank you. It's been my pleasure to chat with you.

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