The thinking behind NBS (National Building Specification), an organisation that encourages better practice in the construction industry – was first developed in the 1960s
CEO Richard Waterhouse explains: “At the time the UK was plagued by some very poor construction and an industry report recommended a national specification was established to improve building quality.”
RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) subsequently set up NBS to provide credible construction information to the sector with its first printed publication made available in 1973.
Initially, however, it was not supported by the construction industry.
“People wanted the information but they weren’t prepared to pay for it,” says Richard.
Two years later, there was a management buyout of NBS and, simply because the two directors were Geordies, the company moved to Tyneside, where it has been based ever since.
NBS made steady progress during the 1970s and 1980s and in 1987 the company began looking at digital ways of presenting its information (replacing existing paper versions).
This foray into the possibilities of digital technologies continued and it helped attract the attention of Richard.
A qualified architect, Richard – originally from Bindley in Yorkshire – always had an interest in software and could see the benefits digital technology could bring to the construction process.
Richard joined NBS in 1995. He was appointed managing director in 2002 and CEO in 2004.
His initial role at NBS, though, was as a (snappily titled) electronic services support specialist, in which Richard estimates he visited around 3000 UK practices and, he says, he developed a highly attuned ability to recognise and segment customer need – something he draws on to this day.
His first move when he became managing director in 2002 was to buy the development arm of NBS from its existing base at Newcastle University.
“It made sense to own the intellectual property and to be able to direct and guide the development that we needed to focus on to service our customers’ needs,” Richard says.
NBS has continued to stay at the forefront of digital innovation and now offers a suite of construction information management products, from contact administration tools to full building and engineering specification that support construction professionals.
The company also chose to continue its investment in digital after 2008 – a courageous move given that UK construction fell by around 40 per cent during the recession.
“Our chairman said at the time that recessions presented opportunities for change and so we carried on with our digital investment so we could service the construction sector once it started to recover.”
The vast majority of NBS customers (around 98 per cent) now buy one, two or three-year subscriptions to access the specific tools and services that they require.
“There’s a price point into which all our customers can buy into our services,” explains Richard. “Very small practices can go online and write a basic specification for £50, leading up to the £1000s, which provides licenses across multiple sites and access to all of our libraries and functionality.”
Key to NBS products, Richard explains, is providing a platform where architects, engineers, builders, surveyors and other construction professionals can share information collaboratively.
“No architect can deliver a building on their own; neither can any engineer or a contractor. They have to work together and so we’ve created a way to do that.”
However, he, also points out that this doesn’t impact the unique selling points of its users.
“When it comes to professionals in construction, it all comes down to a person’s intellectual property and expertise. So, something I think NBS as done well at is to recognise the need to share information and best practice while retaining the individual knowledge that makes each practice unique.
“Our tools also allow practices to analyse what they do and identify what they do well and what they need to change.”
NBS’s ongoing commitment to building information modelling (BIM) – a digital management to design, deliver and manage a full construction project – put the company in a stellar position after the Government announced in 2010 that all centrally funding construction projects must be delivered using BIM from April 2016.
Richard reports that, currently, 94 out of the top 100 UK architects use NBS services (and that all use contractors who do), while BIM saved the public purse £855 million on construction projects last year.
In the 2015 financial year, NBS announced record operating profiles of £3.7 million, up 40 per cent on 2014, and with 2016’s results to be announced next month, Richard and the team are expecting another impressive set of figures to report.
NBS’s recent success has also allowed it to transform its Newcastle base.
A former post office dating back to the 1870s, in the heart of the city centre, has been given a £5.8 million revamp and now offers a modern and inviting environment for the ever-growing workforce (currently just under 200), complete with a gallery space, seminar room, café, outdoor terrace and imminent plans for a gym and yoga studio.
NBS joins a number of other companies and organisations based in and around Newcastle that are focusing on BIM, including Northumbria and Teesside Universities, Newcastle-based Viewpoint, Ryder Architect’s BIM Academy and North Shields-based KyKloud.
The result, Richard says, is that the North East is leading the expertise in BIM, nationally and internationally – something that can only be good news for the region’s economy and jobs market.
With NBS dominating the UK marketplace and reports of impressive publicly funded construction savings piquing the interest of Governments and construction practices around the world, the company is now looking to expand globally.
NBS launched a subsidiary, NBS Knowledge Pty Ltd, in Australia in November 2016 and in January this year it acquired Digicon Information Inc, in Canada.
For Richard and NBS, though, growth into new international markets doesn’t mean simply serving up the existing suite of products.
“We will be working with our potential customer base in Australia and Canada to find out what their needs are and what adaptations we need to make to products,” Richard explains.
In doing so, NBS is hoping to tap into a new industry trend coined ‘Follow the Sun’.
Richard explains: “This focus is already on delivering buildings quicker and so instead of designing something for eight hours and then leaving it until the next day, the bigger companies – some of which are already beginning to do this – have a situation where, for example, a designer in London works on something for eight hours, they then pass it onto someone in San Francisco who will work on it for eight hours and they will then pass it on to someone in Australia, who will work on it for another eight hours. By the time the London-based designer gets back into the office the next day, the project has had two extra days’ work done on it.
“With our recent moves into Australia and Canada,” Richard adds, “NBS is also way on its way to following this pattern.”
Despite NBS’s new international focus, Richard maintains that the company’s core activity will remain in the North East of England: “It may not be where all of our activity takes place in the future, but our beating heart will always be in the North East.”