Laying the foundations for better construction

It's easy to take for granted just how crucial buildings are to all our lives. Think about the hospital you were born in, the home you grew up in, the school you were taught in and the building you work in. Buildings of all types have a profound impact on each of our lives, as indeed they do on the environment around us.

 But the way we create these buildings needs to change and that change is becoming ever more urgent. Just imagine for a moment if, for every car in the world, designers went back to the drawing board each time. Picture the major car manufacturers using a bespoke design and different supply chains just to get one car off the assembly line. The consequences are not hard to imagine. Costs would quickly rise, and quality would vary widely with greater safety and environmental risks. This couldn't work for the automotive sector and in truth, it doesn't work for construction either. 

The sector is less productive than the economy as a whole; the focus on project build cost means we do not get the best value for users, society and in the long term, the economy. Added to this, the sector's carbon footprint is far too high and with an ever-growing public focus on climate change, the industries green credentials are being thrust into the spotlight. 

Changing construction will be no easy feat – the sector is massive, accounting for around 9% of our GDP. Alongside this, it is deeply fragmented making any change a challenge although they may be essential and inevitable. The Construction Innovation Hub, which I'm privileged to lead, has been given the task of being the catalyst for that change. 'So what?' you might reasonably ask. Haven't we all heard many times before the clarion calls for radical transformation in construction? What's different this time?  

These are perfectly reasonable questions. Allow me to set out what I think sets the Construction Innovation Hub apart from what's come before and why I truly believe we can deliver what we're setting out to do. First and foremost, we have strong backing from Government, through the comprehensive Construction Sector Deal, with £72million of funding allocated to deliver our programme. This may not seem like a huge amount, considering how much has been put behind other sectors of the economy. It is, nonetheless, the largest tranche of money Government has ever put behind construction. That I would say is evidence of just how seriously Government wants us to succeed. 

Secondly, from the conversations I've had thus far, I think there is a genuine appetite for change amongst the sector. There may be disagreement on how we get there and how far we need to go, but across construction there is a recognition that the sector needs to modernise, embracing new and better ways of delivering outcomes and be ready to face the challenges of the future. We should aim to be a sector where sustainability is the modus operandi rather than just an aspiration. 

Upskilling and training must be prioritised so that young people leaving school or university see construction as an exciting place to work, rather than just hard hats, muddy building sites and cement mixers. Just last week, we kicked off a critical phase of our transformative programme, with an Open Call to industry to work with us develop a Platform Solution. You could see this as the 'car chassis' upon which critical government buildings will be based in future. Whitehall departments like Education or Health spend around £15billion each year on buildings such as new schools, hospitals, social housing and much more. At Budget 2017, Government announced that by 2019, these, and several other government departments like Justice and Defence would adopt a presumption in favour of offsite construction. The Construction Innovation Hub, through our Platform Solution, but also our wider programme, is working to help make Government's ambition a reality. 

In the coming months and years, we'll be working with industry to identify and co-develop a platform solution that can be designed, manufactured and installed on a structural carrier frame and are able to be used across multiple building types – again, think of schools and hospitals. In one sense, our Open Call is a rallying call – if your business has an innovative product, be that a wall panel, roofing system, floor panel or cladding solution, we would like to hear from you. We don't expect businesses applying to our Open Call to have all the solutions - what we are trying to do is bring together the very best of what is already out there to develop a new 'kit of parts' in the same way that automotive does. This will help ensure our buildings – from foundation to roof – are delivering the best outcomes for not only the clients who procure them, but crucially the end users (students, soldiers, hospital patients) and of course the environment around them. 

To kick-start the process, we have entered an eight-week phase that we are terming a 'sandpit phase'. We will use this period to encourage applicants to form consortia between themselves to help deliver a component that can be integrated on to the platform. Businesses that are successful in making it through our Open Call process can look forward to a full range of support and mentorship from the very best of expertise from across the three partners of the Construction Innovation Hub – the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), the Building Research Establishment (BRE) and the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB). We'll be working side-by-side with companies every step along the journey, but in return we do expect a significant commitment in terms of time and resource. Rome wasn't built in a day – even if they'd had modern methods of construction back then, it's unlikely they'd have pulled it off. 

Similarly, transforming construction will not happen overnight – it'll require determination, commitment and, above all, collaboration. But the long-term outcomes we can look forward to will certainly be worth some heavy lifting in the short term. Our buildings will be built using methods that are faster, cheaper, safer and more sustainable. We will deliver greater value from how we create new buildings and the benefits will be felt far beyond the construction sector by society and the environment. 

Guest Blogger - Keith Waller Programme Director Construction innovation hub

 


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