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This article is based on the Built Environment Matters podcast episode featuring Trudi Sully, Impact Director at the Construction Innovation Hub, in conversation with Jaimie Johnston MBE, Head of Global Systems at Bryden Wood
With a breadth of cross-sectoral experience connected by themes of challenge, change and growth, Trudi Sully is used to looking at the darkest sides of an industry and watching as innovation forges a transformational path to a better state of being. Pushing back and questioning why things are happening has become a key part of her process in her current role as Impact Director at the Construction Innovation Hub, a UK government funded programme established in response to the many and varied challenges currently impacting the construction industry.
Faced with a range of issues from slow technological adoption and poor productivity, to a serious level of major incidents and accidents, the construction ecosystem has long been in need of a major transformation. At Bryden Wood we’ve found that some of the greatest successes and quickest changes come from cross-fertilising ideas from one sector to another, disrupting a long-standing model with a better way of working. With a background spanning industries like agriculture, engineering and healthcare, as well as work as part of the Technology Strategy Board of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), Sully says it’s the significant breadth of her previous experience that makes her so well suited to her current work with the Hub.
Now entering its fourth year in operation, the purpose of the Construction Innovation Hub is to act as a catalyst to support the industry, working with both the UK government and supply chain, in order to establish how we can facilitate more effective delivery of our built environment. Working with manufacturing and digital processes in its quest to support progression around productivity and efficiency, the Hub focuses on safety, meeting and exceeding existing standards, and looking toward future approaches. The Construction Innovation Hub works with over 200 companies in various ways across a range of projects, and collaborates with government partners, including all of the contracting departments. At core, the Construction Innovation Hub is a consortium of three organisations:
The opportunity for this sort of package was recognized in the 2017 Industrial Strategy. This was a significant step because the problems facing construction are long-standing and well known. During the last few decades, while other large industries have gone through transformational levels of change, the construction industry has remained relatively static. Following on from the Latham and Egan reports in the 1990s, in 2016 the Farmer Report concluded that the industry must “modernise or die.”
Sully says that the key element we’ve been missing in construction is the ethos of collaboration and innovation found in other industries. It’s a somewhat odd situation considering that the construction industry is inherently a collaborative one. Every asset we build requires many different parties to work together, but when the projects end, people go their separate ways as competitors. Although that’s all fine and good, ultimately it means we aren’t taking learnings forwards from one project to another. Things aren’t being effectively fed back or built upon, and so we aren’t seeing the beneficial changes we desire. Sully believes it’s this lack of considered collaboration, and the need to overcome such issues, which is ultimately responsible for the lack of government funding we’ve seen, despite long-standing acknowledgement of the problems.
Things began to shift when the Construction Leadership Council (CLC), and some of the large industry players, began to talk about how we could start to work together to be more effective. Bryden Wood’s efforts to develop P-DfMA processes and strategies utilising platform construction and manufacturing approaches have helped to facilitate an understanding of the ways we might achieve our desired goals.
Bryden Wood’s previous work with the first iterations of platform construction for the Ministry of Justice formed an early step on the P-DfMA path. Trudi Sully was involved with the effort to bring manufacturing into that process as part of her work with the MTC. She notes that the MOJ programme was a great kickstarter and remains a valuable reference point.
When comparing construction’s journey to the evolution of other sectors, such as aerospace and automotive, we find clear examples of the progression that’s possible when shifting from a bespoke and artisan product, to a focus on standardised processes, mass production and mass customisation. Although the construction industry often objects to such comparisons on the basis of being different, the fact is there are tremendous similarities. In reality, we have much to learn from the other sectors who have progressed successfully down this path ahead of us.
Sully recalls that work on the MOJ project included a certain amount of culture shock, and says there was a chasm that needed bridging in order to bring together the fantastic capabilities of both the manufacturing and construction industries. Now that this new model of working is finally becoming a reality, we need to push forward, focusing our efforts on proving the benefits, propagating the methodology, and enabling it to spread across the sector. In order to fully drive the change we’re seeking, we need to start delivering real projects. That’s when we’ll really start getting the level of information we can use and build upon for best effect.
Bryden Wood’s work with Landsec on The Forge in London represents just such an exciting opportunity and case study. The Forge is a world first, an office building created using a platform based (P-DfMA) approach to design and construction. The project aims to produce the UK’s first net-zero carbon commercial building. With this innovative project we’re witnessing years of development work coming to fruition, which is better enabling us to understand both the challenges and the benefits of this new process on a deeper level.
If we truly aim to create a better future for construction, we must first recognise that implementing a new way of working will require a process of continual learning and progress. We need to be documenting, capturing, sharing and improving our processes, not just finishing a project with relief and moving to the next one. Approaching our processes from a mindset of constant questioning and exploration, with a goal of deeper understanding, is what really gets people thinking and seeing things differently. This is how we’ll create real change.
When the Construction Innovation Hub began, the intention was for a project management strategy focused on iteration and development. The goal was to develop a kit-of-parts approach that could be implemented with manufacturing processes, assembled in standardised ways, in standardised environments. That still exists, but the Hub is now aware of the need to look at other and bigger elements as well, such as information management.
The Construction Innovation Hub is interested in how we can use data more effectively, and how it can be interoperable, reused in different ways by different parties, and throughout the life of an asset. The Hub will continue to explore how to develop platform construction (P-DfMA), and how people can benefit from it, with an aim of developing guides and rule books, but it’s also now looking beyond modern methods of construction (whether you call that platform construction, offsite, or DfMA), at traditional construction as well. It’s viewing things at an ecosystem level and bringing them all together with elements like the Value Toolkit, which is there to help everyone, but will specifically help clients make better, value based decisions using consistent processes and approaches.
The act of combining that with all of the different approaches to delivering buildings means we’re able to progress delivery, while looking towards the long-term as well. The Construction Innovation Hub has a year left, during which time it will need to create impact and get the necessary information to prove value. However, realistically, it’s going to take a decade or more to really embed these approaches, and for parallel developments to share data and information that really demonstrates value. This will in turn enable clients to make better choices and achieve better delivery of buildings.
The progress we’ve seen in just the last five years has been significant, and it’s important to acknowledge that we’ve come a long way in a short period of time because we’ve been able to capitalise on the experience of others. The journey began with the original work with the MOJ, but carried on through to the Autumn Statement, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority beginning to talk about Platforms, and the creation of the Construction Innovation Hub itself.
It’s useful to reflect on how far we’ve come in terms of the significant policy changes and the fact that government departments, who have long been delivering massive infrastructure projects in diverse ways, are now starting to realise the benefits of alignment, harmonisation and rationalisation. All of this helps to leverage the change going forwards, and also creates a hopeful background around the possibility that we’ll start to make changes quite quickly. We saw a similar process with BIM. Once the government established the BIM requirement, there was propagation to the private sector.
As a result of the Infrastructure Projects Authority and the National Infrastructure Pipeline, we now have more clarity surrounding the issue of what needs to be delivered, for who, and the timescales. Although that’s been available for some time, the conversations around commonality are a significant shift. The Construction Innovation Hub’s work last year with the Defining the Need Report looked at the specific pipelines of infrastructure delivery (particularly social infrastructure), and analyzed what specification requirements were already in place, their maturity, and how much common ground existed.
The level of significant overlap was surprising. Over fifty percent of the estates were not unique in any way. And yet, the way these programs are being delivered is incredibly diverse, which simply doesn’t make economic sense. Identifying this reality and presenting it in such a clear and accessible way has garnered a lot of support from the government. The opportunity is clear to see. Sully doesn’t believe there will be any person, from any industry, political party, or part of the government, who will object to having better quality buildings delivered at lower costs, and providing better overall value. This is truly a better, faster, greener agenda. We’re seeing a need to kickstart things as a result of COVID, but there’s also been a reset of some of the policy, and time to create policy, which is now coming to fruition.
The latest policy refresh has been to Transforming Infrastructure Performance. The first TIP documents came out in 2017 around the suite of Industrial Strategy documents, setting out a vision for how we would start to drive value and deliver our infrastructure. The Construction Playbook then set out key policies and guidance for how public works projects and programmes are assessed, procured and delivered. TIP 2021 has moved on significantly, painting a much more vivid picture.
Transforming Infrastructure Performance: Roadmap to 2030, sets out a vision for innovation and reform in infrastructure delivery, covering target and focus areas, as well as providing robust requirements for government clients to deliver against. The document makes it clear that the UK government is seeking a step change in productivity across the way we plan, design, manufacture, construct and operate. In short, everything needs to change, and the Roadmap to 2030 offers the tools to do that. The Roadmap goes beyond MMC and DfMA, looking at a holistic approach to delivering differently, not just in terms of platform construction and the kit-of-parts, but also the processes that come with it.
The Roadmap to 2030 discusses the wider implications of the change. It talks about disaggregated supply chains, and therefore how we might engage SMEs, or how we might lower the barrier to entry. It talks about the strong link between digital and physical, in that, once you have these components, it unlocks configurators and the potential for a digital marketplace. TIP 2021 talks about factory-like conditions on site.
There’s been an increasing sophistication around people's understanding of modern methods of construction, in that MMC doesn't just mean offsite, and neither does platform construction (P-DfMA), We’re starting to talk much more about the real drivers. We want our assets delivered in a way that’s better, faster and greener. The aim is for less material, fewer people, higher productivity, and automation and activity where it's best suited.
The emphasis with The Roadmap to 2030 is very much on that process from concept and design, right through to the end of an asset’s life. The use of data in a consistent way, as part of the information management mandate, will be key to ensuring ongoing effectiveness across the whole life-cycle. Transforming Infrastructure Performance 2021 is positive, accessible and hopefully provides the drive needed to invest in change by looking for opportunities to align with the rest of the industry, and by taking small steps which can be expanded upon for further growth.
On a related note, although the definition of what we mean by a platform approach to construction is now becoming more fulsome, we can still go back to the IPA document from 2018 and continue to find it completely relevant and valid. This demonstrates a consistency of thinking which should be quite reassuring. TIP 2021 is just a more detailed roadmap, and this should be helpful to people if they are struggling with the concepts. Of course, we do run the risk that the term “kit-of-parts” itself is becoming so commonly used now that it may become misused, an issue we’ve seen happen with other MMC nomenclature. We don’t want to create a plethora of kits-of-parts, as value and quality of delivery will be ensured by harmonising those approaches, systems and processes.
We also don’t want people to feel so overwhelmed at the thought of everything changing that they ignore what’s happening and never begin. We need to try and articulate the way of doing this as clearly as possible. Some of the work the Construction Innovation Hub is doing now is about bringing together all of the different puzzle pieces. Moreover, it’s important to recognise that the Roadmap to 2030 sets everything out in a way which makes it easier for people to plan, looking at what will happen in the first two years of our progression, then two to five years, and five to ten. This will enable people to plan, take advantage of opportunities, and evolve. When things are backed up from the client side, the supply chain can have confidence in evolving their approach and the departments will have confidence procuring this way as well. We’ll find that small steps make a significant difference. It won’t take long.
At Bryden Wood we’re starting to see a real surge of interest from lower tiers of the supply chain, which supports the idea that one major benefit of all of this will be that we'll unlock SMEs in a way that probably hasn't been done before. In other words, the disintermediation will start to bear significant fruit. While the Tier One role is likely to see the biggest change and will probably face the biggest challenge ahead in terms of evolving their mindsets and positions for the future models, the SMEs might be doing more of what they do, but better and more consistently. SMEs make up a massive portion of the industry, with significant diversity, and we’ll probably also start seeing disruptors in this space as well.
The Construction Innovation Hub is currently working with a wide range of partners including individual consultants and small companies. This includes SMEs with new approaches, technologies and kit developed to support the manufacture of products set to become part of these platform (P-DfMA) systems. The Hub is also working with the companies who will actually be onsite, and who understand how these systems work and effectively integrate in order to facilitate delivery of the built environment itself.
Then there are the companies working in areas like MEP and facades. In some respects they’re the easy ones, because many of them are already manufacturing products. They’re familiar with manufacturing processes and, in some cases, are already supplying other industries and familiar with other mindsets and cultures. They’ll easily adapt to this future delivery model.
As the SMEs grow and invest in their capabilities, we’ll see more drive from that supply chain side because of the confidence they’ll have in the pipeline, and the opportunity to be secure in that investment. However, one challenge we do face is that SMEs can be hard to reach because they’re often so busy doing their jobs that they don’t necessarily have time to look at these bigger changes. One reason government funding and R&D programmes are so important is because these things enable a de-risked environment whereby SMEs can work and learn the evolving operating and delivery systems.
One of the most intriguing parts of Transforming Infrastructure Performance: Roadmap to 2030, is the potential for a government mandate within the next couple of years. The last big mandate was BIM, and it had a transformative impact. There’s enormous potential here, but the industry needs to take some time to work out what the terms of such a mandate might be, in order to ensure it manifests as something helpful for everyone.
The mention of a possible future mandate in TIP 2021 reflects positively on the work that has been done so far, and the commitment from the government on the issue. Although some might challenge this, there is a vast amount of evidence supporting the idea that the adoption of manufacturing approaches and processes, as well as certain elements of standardization in how we build our buildings, will deliver significant change and great benefits. A mandate would force people to keep pursuing this new, MMC approach going forward, helping us to keep this push towards modern methods of construction and a better way of working from fading away.
A mandate would also encourage collaboration, because we’ll have to do this together in order to reap the benefits. Additionally, it would also provide a timeframe to prove what we’re doing, collect the data to demonstrate the opportunity, and work together to shape the next steps of the journey. Ultimately, a mandate would create leverage, commitment and confidence as the industry moves towards change, with the government then able to look to build this into future frameworks, or to pursue new mechanisms for procuring our buildings.
The next five years will be an exciting time for construction, as we continue to lean into this significant shift. We have to recognise that it will be a process of iteration and development, and that we must bring everyone along on the journey with us. Trudi Sully says that when looking back at where we’ve been so far, of course there are things which could have been done differently, but she reminds us that the point of learning, development and feeding back, is that it enables us to refine and make valuable changes over time. The backing from the government to progress this is significant, and it’s incredibly important that we have that support.
In the end, Sully says the key to our success will be a collaborative approach and a willingness to share. Although it can be challenging in a competitive environment to work out what to share and what to hold back, history has shown us that change happens faster, more effectively, and at lower cost if we work together. Industry players will always be in a better position by working with their competitors to overcome shared challenges, moving forwards collectively and then beginning to compete on the delivery side and what comes next. In this way, the industry will become more effective, sustainable and even profitable over time.
Our strength is in our built environment, and our recovery from everything we’ve been through across the past few years will require the right infrastructure to move us forward. This is our unique moment of opportunity to shape the future of construction and positively impact our built environment for years to come, garnering government support and avoiding massive problems ahead. We must stop and ask ourselves, if not now, when?
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