BMF Conference: The Builder's Perspective

Published:  19 June, 2015

Tommy Walsh joined the Conference to give delegates The Builders' Perspective.

Mr Walsh is well-known to TV viewers for his work on programmes including Ground Force and Tommy's Eco House. Ground Force has now aired for 13 series and been shown all around the world, and was part of the wave of home and garden makeover TV programmes, beginning in the 1990s, which encouraged UK homeowners to update and renovate their homes. Mr Walsh also has a building business, based in Hackney in South London, which specialises in hard landscaping.

"I am first and foremost a builder, and very proud to be one," Mr Walsh began. "My background is in the building trade - my dad had a firm manufacturing breeze blocks and I went to work for him at an early age."

Mr Walsh regaled delegates with anecdotes from his TV career, during which he has been part of the Ground Force team who redesigned Nelson Mandela's garden. He also presented Tommy's Eco House, where the team built a house for £60,000 in 60 days, on a piece of land bought for £60,000, to prove that sustainable construction could be economically available to all.

Ironically, Mr Walsh said that at the same time as the TV show aired, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) said it couldn't be done.

Mr Walsh gave delegates a builder's perspective of the kind of service he expects from a merchant, calling for more transparency and a more even-handed approach to price discounts. He said when cash flow is so important to a merchant's business, he couldn't understand why, because he preferred to pay cash on collection for building products, he could not access the same pricing discounts as those who pay large account bills every couple of months. While he said he understood the principle of volume discounts, that loyalty had to count for something, and smaller builders who buy less stock, but shop more frequently and pay cash, should be able to build up the same discounts.

"That's where you can score, by rewarding customer loyalty," he said.

He also suggested that merchants create a register of local tradespeople and businesses who could be recommended to contractors, which again rewards brand loyalty.

Don't Get Complacent

Mr Walsh used the major supermarket chains as an example of the dangers of complacency to all businesses.

"Look at Tesco and the others," he said. "In pursuit of profits they abandoned their customers and ignored the changes people wanted - they got complacent. That let the discounters get a foothold on the market, and now the large supermarkets are in real trouble. Don't make the same mistakes as them."

Meet the newbuild demand

Much has been said in the press in recent months about the need for up to 300,000 more houses to be built every year just to keep up with the expected growth in the UK population. "This should be good news," Mr Walsh said, "but supply issues are forcing material prices up and I think the industry could crash again unless we make changes now.

"Suppliers and builders must work together to find a solution. Forget about the politicians - the industry has to take the lead in creating new, efficient homes for everyone, and not just in the private sector."

Mr Walsh suggested that offsite construction could prove to be a solution, pointing back to the 1940s and 1950s, when pre-fabricated houses were a solution to the housing crisis shortage. He said he hoped that the technical advances that have been made since could make off-site construction more sustainable as a technique.

He also said the industry needed to improve its reputation, and take control of the quality of the buildings it creates right from concept to completion. This, he felt, could help to encourage the next generation of construction professionals to want to get involved in the industry, and to promote the importance of trades and skills, particularly through apprenticeships.

"The industry is potentially stronger now than it's ever been," he concluded, "but only if we take advantage of the opportunities we have."

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