The challenge has been set for the construction industry to reach the Government’s ambitious 2025 targets. These include lowering construction costs and the whole life cost of built assets by 33%, lowering emissions by 50%, and delivering projects 50% faster. So how are we going to do it?

We need to make significant changes to industry business models, and we need to make the most of innovation, of which there was plenty to see and hear about at Ecobuild 2015. Concepts such as biomimicry and circular economy are often presented as innovative, including at this year’s Ecobuild, even though they have been around for many years now.

There are examples of projects trying to develop new business models and use innovative materials or processes, but in isolation they are having a very small impact on industry practice overall. Professor Mark Miodownik, Professor of Materials and Society at UCL, talked about ‘self-healing concrete and tarmac’, which is being produced in Holland by the tonne. So why aren’t we all using it? Where is the construction revolution? If we have all these great ideas, why aren’t they mainstream in the UK construction industry?

The problem seems partly due to the industry’s siloed and risk-averse nature. It’s all very well offering innovative solutions, but if no one wants to take the leap of faith needed to try out the new product, progress is going to be incredibly slow. And that’s exactly what’s been happening. In an Ecobuild session called “Innovation and new materials: Could they revolutionise sustainable construction?” speaker Sarah Cary, Sustainable Developments Executive from British Land said: “We try to embrace innovation, working closely with contractors, but the problem is our insurers don’t see it as innovation – they see it as risk.” Michael Pawlyn, Director at Exploration Architecture said “We were involved early on, developing all these exciting innovative designs and project specific solutions, trying new products to fit the requirements. And then we got to the first project meeting and suddenly ‘innovation’ was substituted for ‘risk’.” It’s a fine line between risk and innovation when hard evidence of the benefits are hard to find. And with tight margins to start with, no contractor wants to take the risk and be the guinea pig without working through the issues with the client’s team.
And the distribution of risk lies in the industry’s siloed business model. Often design, construction, facilities management and sustainability teams are represented by almost as many different organisations, which leads to a fragmented workflow. We all know from experience that early involvement of all parties, and collaboration with the supply chain to find project-specific solutions can result in fantastic buildings, whilst improving building performance and user satisfaction. Yet the ‘business as usual’ model is still based on clients contracting with individual businesses, each with their own agendas, often resulting in a lack of transparency and joined up thinking. Add to that the seven to ten year (!) gap for academic research to be realised in to industry (to more than just a flagship test project), and it’s no wonder that the construction industry is feeling held back.

It’s time to make drastic changes if we want to achieve the Government’s Construction 2025 Strategy targets…and it’s only ten years away after all.

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