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Getting a Broad View of Constructing the Built Environment

A Satellite Account for Built Environment Industries

How the built environment is created and maintained through project initiation, design, fabrication and construction to operation, repair and maintenance is an ongoing process. The network of firms involved includes construction contractors and subcontractors, property management and real estate services, manufacturers of fittings, finishings, plant and equipment, suppliers of building materials, and professional services. All these firms belong to industries that are part of the process of producing and maintaining the built environment.

National agencies collect data and present it in tables following the format given in the System of National Accounts (SNA) published by the UN. The national accounts present highly aggregated estimates of expenditure, output and income based on the detailed data collected on the economic activities of households, firms, non-profits and government. That data is collected using the methods, definitions and categories provided in the SNA, ISIC and other publications. Firms and other organizations are assigned ISIC codes on the basis of common characteristics in products, services, production processes and logistics, and collects companies and other organizations into groups with similar characteristics.

Industries as defined by SIC classifications cannot capture all their associated economic activities, and when economic activities involve a range of different industries the contribution of a sector is not obvious, despite its importance. Because the ISIC system puts strict boundaries around an industry, what is included or left out of the definition of an industry determines its extent. However, inclusions and exclusions vary greatly between industries and there are many anomalies. Examples are:

· Health insurance is included in Insurance not in health expenditure

· Retail sales by chemists is included in Pharmaceutical expenditure as well as manufacturing and R&D

· Research is classified to industries not by purpose, and often done by institutions

· Automobile manufacture includes design, Construction does not

The solution to the issues raised by narrow SIC industry definitions is a satellite account that reclassifies expenditures from different industry groupings into a single sector. Satellite accounts have been produced for many sectors that are made up of several industries, such as health, the digital economy, the environment, R&D, the space industry, and infrastructure. They have also been produced for non-profit institutions, volunteering, education and training, and unpaid household activities. They are used to provide more detail on sectors that are not visible in current statistics, following guidelines provided by the SNA for their preparation. The most widely found satellite account is for tourism, so far produced at various times for over 50 countries. This brings together the contributions of industries like travel, accommodation, hospitality, tour operators and entertainment to estimate their total output and employment.

The primary purpose of satellite accounts is to improve policy-making by providing better, more granular data, and demand for satellite accounts has increased as their usefulness has been shown. A 2019 survey by the UN found 80 countries had produced 241 satellite accounts covering over 20 different topics, with 148 of those done since 2000, mainly on health, tourism and the environment. The number produced by country varied from one to 15, the median number of satellite accounts in production was 2 and the average was 4. As a result, there are many guidelines for producing a satellite account available, usually produced through international collaboration, and the methodology has been adapted to a wide variety of sectors.

Figure 1. Number of satellite accounts by sector

Source: Conference of European Statisticians, 2019: 11. In-depth review of satellite accounting, Paris: UNECE.

Preparation of a satellite account requires significant research and development. Different data sources have to be harmonized and measurement challenges met. The OECD published A System of Health Accounts in 2000 (updated 2011) after 15 years of development of the concepts and methods needed for a health satellite account, and the US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) worked on their R&D satellite account for over a decade. However, the research is being done and more satellite accounts are being produced, such as the 2020 estimates for The Small Business Economy, and the Space Economy. In 2021 the OECD published the first Working Paper on a Transport satellite account.

A built environment sector satellite account would restrict its scope to relevant activities, and would therefore remain within the production, consumption and asset boundaries of the SNA framework, a type of satellite account known as a thematic account. Some examples of thematic accounts are agriculture, tourism, culture, and sport and recreation. Developing a sector based thematic account involves regrouping, re-arranging and re-packaging existing national accounts data by creating definitions of the economic activities, products, suppliers and users involved.[i] In some cases the national accounts data is supplemented by other sources, such as surveys of household activities or expenditure, that collect data on the use of products and supply of services not otherwise available.

Despite issues of data quality and availability, bringing together the range of industries that contribute to the production, maintenance and management of cities, infrastructure and buildings in a satellite account would improve our understanding of both the sector and the wider economy. For example, urban development and city policies involve significant infrastructure spending, which is often their main focus. However, it is the associated induced industrial, commercial and residential development around the new infrastructure that drives longer-term growth. A satellite account captures that activity.

Note: [i] In selecting a number of industries of special interest ‘It is common practice to refer to such groupings of industries as “sectors” even though they do not constitute institutional sectors as the term is used in the SNA. The SNA does not try to provide specific and precise criteria for the definition of what identifies a key sector or activity….. in some important cases, such as tourism and environmental protection activities, the process of identification of characteristic and connected products is complex because not all the relevant activities and products appear in the central framework classifications.’ OECD, 2000. A System of Health Accounts, OECD Publishing, Paris. Characteristic products are those that are typical of the field, for construction characteristic products are buildings and structures, project management and other professional services. Connected goods and services includes expenditure on products that are not typical and are classified to other product categories. In construction quarrying, manufactured products and transportation of materials and components may be considered connected.

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About the Blog

This blog is concerned with the organisation of the building and construction industry, in the economic sense of combining factors of production to create output.


The modern industry's origins in the 19th century can still be seen in many of its characteristic features, and many contemporary issues are also found in projects from the past.


Like many industries, it is being reshaped by unprecedented rapid and widespread advances in materials, technology and capability.

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