Innovation Behind the Scenes: Why the Construction Industry is Wrongly Disregarded as Static and Unimaginative by Many in the Innovation Game?

April 19, 2022

By Raed Hamandi, Director, Bonham & Brook and RH Construction Ltd.

When looking to determine the rate of progress within an industry in regard to innovation, construction is perhaps the most challenging. Now is that because it is not there or is this because of the nature of the industry itself?

On a glance considering the level of innovation and positive disruption across the plethora of industries that have been around for the last couple of hundred years: automotive, transport, food & drink, media, and so on, invention, imitation, and innovation are strikingly clear. Yet, on the surface, the construction industry appears to be virtually the same as it was 1000 years ago. The key principles which form the building blocks are still in place and as solid as ever. Same materials, same supply chains, same processes some might argue. Whilst technically true in part especially on a materials front, concrete has been utilised by all throughout history, from the Mayans to the Romans, and is still absolutely integral today. Similar examples, perhaps with slightly less emphasis on ancient history can be cited with steel, glass, timber and so many more materials that are still essential to the construction industry in 2022. Okay, the use of crane’s as a transportation technique falls into a similar category too with the first example of this seemingly attributed to ancient Mesopotamia.

Is it Time for a Material Rethink?

But ignoring or acknowledging those examples of materials and key techniques that are as old as time, yet still as effective as ever, examples of invention or innovation are there. They are not only there but they are staring you, more than likely if you live in a city, right in the face. Perhaps it is the nature of the industry, but despite being some of the largest things on earth, many don’t see the correlation or relationship between innovation in the construction industry and the skyscraper. It’s almost like a quiz answer when it’s obvious once you know it but not so before then. Some might say revolutionary ideas comprised of key innovations from Bessemer steel to the state-of-the-art rolling mills designed and developed in late 19th century America set the wheels in motion for what we almost take for granted in every major world city today. Now some might argue that a skyscraper is what a car is to the automotive industry and that key innovations within the latter are more prevalent than the former in 21st century.

Yet as we scratch below the surface, innovation is there. In recent years, there has been a shift toward technology adoption within the construction industry as productivity and efficiency in both working practices and energy become ever more integral to project and therefore commercial success.

How are Environmental Targets Going to Impact the Industry?

Everyone is now aware that countries across the globe have united to unilaterally set net-zero emissions targets to be achieved by 2050. This has major impacts across the construction industry which is easily one of the biggest culprits of emission generation. Take concrete production alone, this is currently circa 5% of global carbon emissions annually. Noting this, the concrete industry is looking toward innovation as the answer. Australian scientists and businesses are making headlines for their breakthroughs in green concrete.  Innovators are looking to improve the environmental credentials of concrete having already come up with advances like “self-healing” concrete, “concrete-on-a-roll”, concrete printing, and pollution-absorbing cement. Such advances are key to building upon recent successes. Within the UK concrete industry, innovation with regard to everything from production to transportation already reaping significant rewards on a sustainability front with a 53% reduction in absolute carbon dioxide emissions since 1990 – decarbonising faster than the UK economy as a whole.

What about Regulations?

Whilst the necessity for decarbonisation is driving innovation, as are regulatory changes. The tragic Grenfell disaster had an everlasting impact across the sector and how we govern the safety of residential and commercial occupants from a materials standpoint. This in recent years has ultimately led to the development of enhanced fire-resistant cladding materials as the industry seeks to achieve the highest levels of safety possible. Whilst this is one example, perhaps further changes in legislation to enforce legacy buildings to meet modern-day efficiency standards could drive innovation. Could the adoption of sustainability standards such as Passivhaus as the norm within the industry be the way forward?

Although it can be challenging for small and medium-sized companies to invest in new materials or deduce novel techniques to aid project efficiency, (largely because the cost of entry is simply too great and the margins too thin) we are set to see a rise in new methods of construction.

If you look at how Germany and other European countries are approaching new methods, they are heavily involved in the prefabricated methods of construction which are both cheap and easy to build once initial start-up costs have been incurred. Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) seeks to utilise a host of techniques utilised in other sectors and implement their principles within construction. This has led to drastic changes in methods whereby structures can be built by creating panelled units in factories, which can be quickly assembled onsite to create 3D structures. Using volumetric construction, which sees 3D, or prefabricated, units created under factory conditions or the use of pre-cast concrete foundations and pre-formed wiring looms. Now, whilst this innovation is continuously occurring, the end-user is unlikely to clearly see it or be able to confidently identify what is innovative about their MMC house. This argument adds weight to the argument that the innovation is there, yet the nature of the industry precludes it from our thoughts.

The Digitisation of Construction

Further examples of innovation behind the scenes will no doubt occur, with a key area of this in the supply chain and procurement process. This is a grossly antiquated and bulky ordeal. Could full-scale digitisation be the key? The pencil behind the ear can stay but it’ll be behind the ear of someone using an app or database to ensure their labour, materials, and so on are on time and correct. To this day materials are ordered over the phone and could come from any shipment yard across the UK when the same materials could be at a local tradesman from down the road. The industry needs the connectivity so readily available within modern technology to adapt. Apart from the carbon footprint element, buying locally helps the local economy and retains jobs evenly distributed across the country which will inevitably help the trade. It’s a win-win. Perhaps it may be suggested this may fall into the category of innovation on a software front, and yes it will from a technological standpoint, but is innovation purely technological or scientific? A debate for another time maybe.

Ultimately, it is evident that innovation does occur within the construction industry, it is also evident that the construction industry by its very nature almost removes itself from any debate regarding which sector is the most innovative. Whilst the winner is perhaps not important, continual innovation is.

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