This article about shaping the future of construction is based on the Built Environment Matters podcast episodes featuring Professor Jacqui Glass from The Bartlett, UCL, and Jaimie Johnston MBE, Head of Global Systems at Bryden Wood.

Research, standards and the digital generation

As the construction industry embarks on a transformative journey of modernisation, Jacqui Glass offers a unique perspective. Currently Professor of Construction Management at The Bartlett, UCL, Glass has spent over twenty years in roles spanning academia, industry, government and its associated bodies. She’s looked at construction through more lenses than most, and her ability to act as a conduit between practice, policy and the scholarly world is particularly valuable at this critical moment. As the construction eco-system leans into change and innovation, we’ll foster dramatic improvements to productivity, quality, safety and sustainability, creating a better built environment for ourselves and future generations. The path to our goal involves extensive research, a commitment to nailing down nomenclature and standards, and the creation of a home for digital technologies and the young workers who will help us to drive the industry forwards. The process deserves both our commitment and excitement.

Driving innovation through Transforming Construction Network Plus (N+)

Since 2018, Professor Glass has served as Director of Transforming Construction Network Plus. TCN+ is part of the UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Transforming Construction Challenge, along with The Construction Innovation Hub, The Active Building Centre, and a raft of other UK based projects involving academic and industry stakeholders. TCN+ is focused on shaping the future of construction by tackling problems that have plagued the industry for years: how to take advantage of digital opportunities, solve productivity issues, move to a manufacturing mindset, and cut carbon through energy efficient buildings.

Over the last few years, TCN+ has invested over £1 million pounds of funding into 14 innovative research projects. From digital twin initiatives to the evaluation of business models, the projects look to inform future practice and policy. When choosing who to fund, the TCN+ team sought projects targeting the construction industry’s pain points, as well as programs showing innovative potential. Ideas addressing small business and regional initiatives were particularly welcomed, as the team were keen to support lesser known voices outside of the big firms. Some of the projects chosen were as follows:

  • Transitioning to an automated construction supply chain: future business model innovation for SMEs: This compelling project, led by The University of Reading, explored the opportunities and constraints for SMEs in the adoption of robotics and automation. The work explored limitations posed by current business models and the changes that would be necessary to move towards automation of the supply chain, and the wider adoption of technology.
  • Design Optimisation and Prototyping for Affordable Rural Housing: Robert Gordon University in Scotland was selected for this project, focused on transforming the delivery of rural housing via design optimisation and prototyping, in order to facilitate faster, scalable and digitally integrated production. The project also offered the added benefit of attracting digital natives into housing construction.
  • TransPark: A program by the University of Sussex in association with the British Parking Association, TransPark explored how car parking could be revolutionised. With an increase in the number of electric cars on the road, and our need to be connected all the time, the program investigated how car parks could function in an integrated and digitally enabled way.

Currently, the TCN+ stakeholders are in the process of articulating their findings, and plan to share their observations with the business community over the next six months. Due to the longstanding fragmentation of the construction industry there won’t be a panacea, but most companies in the sector will find something interesting in the conclusions. The projects have served as catalysts for change, helping to progress us further toward our goal of modernising and positively shaping the future of construction.

The research has also led to interesting collaborations and networking opportunities with other Transforming Construction Challenge partners and beyond. For example, Dr. Tom Beach at Cardiff University has been funded through one of the projects, with significant scholarly interest in his research on digital compliance checking. As a result of a link fostered by TCN+ with the Construction Innovation Hub, The Hub is now supporting Dr. Beach with some of his leading work. Due to the sheer number of stakeholders involved in supporting these projects, the researchers are frequently making organic connections as they go along. These include representatives from Tier 1 contractors, housing and healthcare companies, as well as other research bodies like the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC). This is all adding to the excitement.

Research acceleration due to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic took hold just as academics and researchers received funding. The resulting lockdown forced the redesign of entire research programs, an accomplishment achieved with great perseverance and agility. One project, Challenging Space Frontiers in Hospitals by Dr Grant Mills from UCL, and involving Bryden Wood Director Steven Tilkin, incorporated Bryden Wood’s innovative work in platform design (P-DfMA). The project was quite far advanced when the pandemic hit, and the timing was particularly pertinent, occurring just as hospital construction began recognising the need to look at other processes, such as offsite construction, standardisation and moving to scale of production. The project research focused on an interesting sectoral comparison between the clean room environment of operating theatres in hospitals, and the modules of a spacecraft. As spacecraft are created offsite and have similar ventilation issues to operating theatres, there were learnings to be made from the way material procurement is handled in the space industry. The project has since influenced further work with London’s Moorfields hospital.

Construction nomenclature and standards: from Modern Methods of Construction to BIM and Platform Design, it’s all in the name.

Professor Glass points out that as the construction industry has begun to progress forward in recent years, new terms like Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) and platform construction (P-DfMA) have burgeoned into existence. With so many industry stakeholders, it’s inevitable that we’ll face a certain amount of confusion and miscommunication as we await consensus on exact definitions. In fact, academics might spend an entire career trying to define a term, as these definitions facilitate clarification and understanding, enabling work to be positioned accordingly. However, it’s important that we agree to draw a line under the process at some point, asserting that a consensus on meaning has been reached. 

Equally, we must recognise just how crucial construction standards are, particularly as the industry modernises and transforms. UK construction companies have been slow to enable staff to be part of committees where standards are created. This is a missed opportunity, as all parties should be working together to advance the whole industry in this regard. Regulations should have a significant and authoritative amount of input as they are developed, particularly given the long-term nature of the work, with buildings expected to last between 60-100 years. Equally, spending more time in the design phase of a project would enable us to truly understand the brief and open up the problem statement, ultimately preventing projects beset with difficulties as a result of a lack of planning.

One challenge we’ll face going forward is that, as innovation increases and we begin to iterate more quickly, the lag between innovation happening and standards struggling to keep up, will begin to get in the way. The construction industry will need to find better ways to reach a consensus faster and deliver better outcomes. Adopting more open source methods, perhaps akin to Wikipedia, could offer a solution. For example, Highways England is currently transforming the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges (DMRB) into a new form, aiming to set the standard for engineering documents in the digital future. This could present an interesting model. 

Another example where UK construction has excelled in this regard is with BIM. In the UK, our view and understanding of BIM is incredibly robust and widespread. As such, UK BIM standards are now becoming the de facto international standard. ISO 19650, the international standard for managing the whole life cycle of a built asset using building information modelling (BIM), contains all the same principles and high level requirements as the UK BIM framework, and has been extremely well received as it has rolled out overseas. Some interesting moves in the sector could also be triggered by The Construction Leadership Council and Construction Industry Council, ensuring that UK construction has the international profile it richly deserves.

Construction standards: from BRE to ISO and The Construction Playbook

We’ve seen some successful examples of standards being set through private initiatives. BRE’s BS6001 framework for the responsible sourcing of construction products relates to a couple of hundred products, is certified and very influential. However, the framework would have had a completely different standardisation process if it were an ISO standard. As soon as things move into the realm of creating international standards, the issues surrounding language become even wider, and political and cultural issues also come into play, so it’s incredibly challenging. Furthermore, there are also important documents like The Construction Playbook, which came out in December 2020, but is neither a standard nor a piece of legislation. Ultimately, the industry would benefit from some clarity in understanding where information sits and the relative authority and legitimacy it has regardless of whether one is a business, client or someone studying the sector. 

Defining the Need Report: unlocking the future of industrialised construction

The Construction Innovation Hub’s Defining the Need Report has made important strides in shaping the future of construction by bringing the standardised, repeatable platform systems found in the manufacturing sector into the construction industry. The report collated cross-departmental data across UK government departments, including the Department for Education (DfE), Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), Ministry of Justice (MoJ), and the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Defining the Need examined future requirements against a £50 billion, five-year, new build pipeline. As all of the departments had their own nomenclature for the base types, it was an arduous task. And yet, once all of the cross-departmental pipelines were put into Uniclass, a great deal of cross-department commonality was revealed. This has delivered a huge body of evidence in terms of how platform design (P-DfMA) can unlock industrialised construction.

Improving diversity and attracting young workers into construction

Understanding how we can attract more people into the sector is vitally important when we consider shaping the future of the construction industry. Although it’s widely recognised that there aren’t enough women and minorities joining construction, Professor Glass says this important issue has been noted and there are people trying to rectify this situation. She also believes academics and researchers could generate enthusiasm by sharing what attracted them to this stimulating, fascinating space, and discussing what motivates them to stay.

We also need to take stock of what competencies are needed in the construction industry, and acknowledge that digital skills must be made a priority. The UK government's decision to bring coding into the national curriculum means we now have digitally enabled young people coming through with these important skills. In principle, upon graduation that new workforce is just as available to the construction industry as to any other sector, but we need to attract them into construction at the right time, or they’ll go elsewhere. Similarly, while it is certainly important to maintain a focus on bringing apprentices and young people into the industry, we also need to prioritise graduates and master’s degree students. These are the people with the higher level skills who can land straight into management roles of organisations and really make significant shifts in how things are done. Moreover, organisations need to create space for people with these skills, because this isn’t always the case at the moment. 

It’s also important to acknowledge the work that is already being done in this area. Bryden Wood’s digital configurator apps are deliberately aimed at lowering the barrier to entry, while Professor Glass notes that at UCL there’s a part of the faculty entirely composed of data scientists looking at the built environment. There’s work for everybody to do on this, we just need to make a home for people in the sector. On a somewhat similar note, the industry also needs to start making better use of its existing data. We can’t expect to get into digital twins and smart assets, if we aren’t making the most of the data we already have access to.

Further exploration into the future of construction

Professor Glass explains that as we turn our efforts towards shaping the future of construction, one of the areas we need to prioritise is our action on net zero and climate change. With construction currently contributing 39% to global carbon emissions, we simply aren’t moving fast enough and the issue needs to be brought forward. She also says that while her team has really begun to understand the business model innovation that’s possible, they don’t yet understand how to take it forward. Action research is needed to be able to study and do at the same time. Testing out some different business models on live construction projects would be risky, she says, but also a magnificent opportunity. 

Bryden Wood has previously discussed the fact that the issues currently holding back the construction industry aren’t the technical aspects, but rather the cultural issues, insurances, warranties etc. In essence, we need someone to take the brakes off, overcoming the friction and constraints. COVID-19 facilitated that to a certain extent, with companies forced to transition to digital very quickly and managing to do so successfully. However, while every other sector has experienced disruption to their business model creating major changes, construction is very risk averse and the implications are long-term. To get a digital thing slightly wrong has, in a sense, a transience that doesn’t matter. However, there are bigger implications for not building a building correctly. 

In terms of where the construction industry is heading in the near future, Professor Glass says that in addition to prioritising our climate change issues, she’d like to see an end to the use of Return on Capital Employed for all of the major contractors. If this unsustainable situation were to change, so that we instead faced a scenario whereby Tier 1 contractors were being judged on Return on Investment, it would likely mean that these key players had disrupted their businesses, understood where change was necessary, were investing, doing more R&D, and creating net zero businesses. In other words, the change the industry is looking for will happen with Tier 1. As such, we must continue on our current trajectory towards innovation, change and forward progress. As we focus our energy and attention on shaping the future of construction, facilitating a new and better reality for our built environment, we’ll find that both our society and planet will reap the benefits of a modernised and more sustainable construction industry.

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