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Transforming Construction: Government and industry join forces to haul construction into the 21st century

Buildings often fail to meet our needs, says Sam Stacey, Challenge Director, Transforming Construction, UK Research & Innovation. They use more energy than they are designed to do, and indeed are designed to use more energy than the planet can sustain – the greenhouse gas emissions from the built environment represent about a third of the total. In terms of user experience, a long list of construction problems include traffic congestion from inadequate infrastructure, and the cost of treating illnesses caused by poor living conditions.

Research has developed so that building quality is now being scientifically analysed, with the findings being fed back into the design process. Over half a century ago, Sir Winston Churchill commented that ‘we shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us’. The design of schools affects the rate at which children learn, hospitals the rate at which patients recover, offices the productivity of workers, and homes the happiness of inhabitants. Data is at the heart of the new science of user experience.

The UK government and industry are now working together to propel construction into a new era. As part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, the government is investing £170M in the ‘Transforming Construction’ programme. This will be matched by at least £250M from industry. The funding will be delivered over four years in order to establish a sustainable long-term model for the industry.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)’s Transforming Construction programme is focused on three strategic solutions. The first is delivering better building outcomes with less risk using digital techniques. This will draw on the skills of the digital industries, including gaming such as Minecraft. The second is to create buildings using manufacturing approaches. The new era of construction will see more work done in efficient factory environments and much less complicated work carried out on site. It will incorporate knowledge from the manufacturing industries, including aerospace and automotive. Finally, there is the focus on improving through-life performance of buildings, using a combination of sensor technology and social science.

This will require changes in the nature of construction organisations and the way they interact. The industry will need to become more vertically integrated, using standard products and processes to create all buildings, including where possible, active (energy positive) technology. This will either mean companies that span the value chain, or projects that take an enterprise approach with agreed common success factors for all participants.

The industry will also need to horizontally integrate, collecting and sharing much more information. This shared information will enable construction to mobilise the potential of machine learning (artificial intelligence) to improve decision making. Furthermore, people and organisations will need to develop new skills, drawing on expertise from sectors which have already been through this process. Lastly there will need to be more longitudinal integration, whereby strong business to business relationships are sustained over time from project to project.

We are thrilled with the progress we have made so far. UKRI has so far provided £129M of funding to industry with a further £36M upcoming for collaborative research and development projects. Funding is being used on over 100 companies of all sizes to work on solutions in collaboration with academia. Particular highlights include the SEISMIC project that has developed standard frames for schools that will meet the targets listed above. These are already being procured at scale as part of the Department for Education’s Generation 5 programme. Another highlight is the ‘Advanced Industrial Methods for the Construction of Homes’ (AIMCH) – a collaboration that will improve the delivery of over 35,000 homes per year.

What we have today is an enormous industry, with many challenges but lots of potential solutions. I have no doubt that construction will leave behind the problems of the past and become an exciting industry that people aspire to be part of. It will offer opportunities for the development of new skills, for tangible contributions to the health of people and planet, and no shortage of financial rewards.

Article submitted by Sam Stacey, Challenge Director, Transforming Construction, UK Research & Innovation