Government has for a long time chastised the construction industry for being disorganised, expensive and only coming to them with their problems and a begging bowl. “Why can’t you be more like the car industry?” they say; they are easy to deal with, produce quality products and have worked hard to reduce their  environmental impact. And until a month ago we hung our heads and tried to work out how to be more like the car industry.

Then came the VW scandal, and it really is a scandal. The deliberate rigging of the testing process by getting the car to understand when it was being tested and modify the performance to improve the data is, in one sense, extremely clever, but, on the other, extremely cynical. To have deliberately defrauded consumers and governments in such a systematic way will take some magical feats of recovery and deep deep pockets. To put this into perspective, it’s not just about money: 50,000 premature deaths each year are a result of air pollution, many of these caused by NOx and diesel particulate – none of which you can see. So this has a human cost and is pretty personal if you have a child who suffers from asthma.

So now we in construction are not looking quite so bad, are we? Well before we start to put out the flags perhaps we ought to just consider how we perform in the performance stakes. Last year the UK Green Building Council issued a report stating that the average building used 200 per cent more energy than the design intent. That’s 200 per cent! Yet there is no public outcry. Part of the reason there is little awareness around the poor performance of buildings is that most clients don’t realise there is a problem or are not responsible for paying the energy bill. The opaque nature of the developer/landlord/tenant relationship has a big part to play here.

How does this disparity come about? Well a good deal comes from the process of ‘value engineering’ where in order to meet an  unrealistic budget the design is changed to effect cost savings. If every part of the design shifts just a small amount the cumulative effect is large. How else do we explain the performance gap of 200 per cent? The difference between what VW has done and our performance gap is that in buildings it’s difficult to detect and everyone is ‘value engineering’.

The FT’s chief business commentator, John Gapper, wrote about this situation last month, saying: “However conventional it is to bend the industry’s regulations, however great an  advantage your rivals gain, however much  pressure you face to do so too, there is a simple test for deciding whether to succumb to  temptation. What would happen if the world found out? How great would the damage be?”

Well, unlike VW, it isn’t exactly a secret: we openly discuss the issue but don’t address it. That’s because the true cost of the  performance gap is picked up by the tenant not the developer. But the biggest loser is the UK tax payer because if the average building uses 200 per cent more energy we need to build new nuclear power stations. If we didn’t use the energy, we wouldn’t need to generate it.

Surely as we change our industry from analogue to digital and embrace the brave new world of BIM this situation will be allowed to prevail, if only because it will become easier for clients to recognise the performance gap.

We may not have a scandal as big as the VW deception, but it is time we started focusing on the product. If we delivered a better product (not just the way it looks) we might find the image problem we all worry about sorts itself out. I mean, look at the car industry!

David Frise

FIS chief executive