Martin Hemmings, founder of Oakbridge Bespoke, tells us about his career history in the housebuilding industry.
Please give us an overview of your current role.
My role as managing director of Oakbridge Bespoke, apart from the usual duties that the title implies, is to provide a balanced interface between the company’s design and construction disciplines. Maintaining design integrity while also controlling costs is a problem that the industry has wrestled with for years. The traditional approach hasn’t worked well for single luxury homes, so this is a key area of focus for me.
What got you into the construction industry – was it always an ambition or did it come about ‘by accident’?
My father was a builder and developer, and I was fortunate to be able to work on construction sites from the age of 14. I fell in love with the idea of a career spent creating buildings that leave a lasting legacy.
What kind of roles did you have before setting out on your own – and what inspired you to do that?
Following several years in higher education I was fortunate to secure several different positions that gave me insights into how the industry works. A particular early highlight was working as a planning engineer in a major construction company. We introduced computerised critical path programming to more tightly control the design, procurement and construction processes. That experience has shaped my thinking ever since.
Before setting up my own business I was MD of a major design and build company involved in substantial commercial and industrial buildings. I established an in-house team of designers to enable us to control the design process and therefore control cost. It was another formative learning experience.
What new skills have you learned since starting your own business?
The most important skill is devising processes that amalgamate our knowledge and experience with our private clients’ expectations. This allows us to conclude a package that fits the client’s budget and timescale and thus facilitates a smooth construction phase. A major step in achieving this goal is the introduction of cloud-based project management technology. This allows greater control and transparency for everyone involved: staff, clients, consultants, subcontractors and suppliers.
Do you have duties you particularly love or hate?
I love overseeing the whole process of our internal team as it flows from originating a design and then gaining planning consent through to the construction and creation of a home that delights the client.
I also love the fact that a good number of our construction management team began with the company as site assistants; their careers have grown with the company.
On the flip side, I am forever frustrated with the often illogical planning process. It frustrates us and our clients.
Another recent plus point is our newly adopted project management system. It provides an immediately accessible vault for all project information and tracks client changes, programme and costs. It is the main interface for site managers where site returns, quality control and safety are all logged. The ease of marking-up and attaching drawings and photographs makes light work of requests for information, inspections and snagging. Our industry has been slow to increase productivity but the roll out of this system has revolutionised the way we work!
What’s the range of in-house skills you have recruited to your Oakbridge team?
One fundamental area for us is the control of mechanical and electrical services. We are developing a tight combination of in-house and external consultants to cover the wide spectrum of heating, air handling, interactive lighting, audio/video, security and fire systems, indoor and outdoor pool technology and the increasing green agenda of electric vehicles, solar thermal, heat pumps, passive ventilation and so on.
Do you think there are some construction industry roles that are not attracting enough talented people?
I believe that for many young people there should be much more emphasis on in-work training rather than university. Most operatives on our sites are very capable and relatively high earners, yet there is little focus on these roles in education and careers advice. For professional positions, we look for individuals who have substantial work experience in addition to the requisite professional qualifications.
What’s been the most challenging project you’ve undertaken, and what was the secret to its success?
We recently completed the refurbishment and conversion of 34 apartments at the listed former UK headquarters of the pharmaceutical company Roche, in Welwyn Garden City. This was quite different from managing individual luxury homes but an exciting and challenging £6million design and construction project.
A modernist office building designed by eminent Swiss German architect Otto Salvisberg, it was crucial that we understood the concept and history of the building. This necessitated a visit to a similar Roche building in Basel, Switzerland. Having a real feeling for the building greatly helped in in establishing a positive relationship with English Heritage and other conservation bodies.
Do you have any interview advice for people looking to progress their career?
Research thoroughly the company that you are seeking to join. Endeavour to understand what makes the organisation unique and gain a full understanding of the role before you attend the interview. That way you can show how you are the perfect fit.
I also think it’s important to include all of your non-work interests on your CV – particularly those that require inter-personal or organisational skills.
Finally, ask plenty of thoughtful, relevant questions and be transparent in your enthusiasm for the position.