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By Sam Stacey, Transforming Construction Director, UKRI

Just over three years ago I took on the role of leading the Government’s programme for Transforming Construction, shifting the system away from lowest cost towards whole-life value of our built assets. The targets were daunting – reduce whole life built asset costs by a third, halve the carbon emissions of buildings, reduce the trade gap and double the speed of delivery. All this against a backdrop of contractor margins averaging two percent and decades of flat-lining productivity. Today when I look at the thrilling work of the Active Building Centre (ABC), the Construction Innovation Hub, the Network Plus and fifty-plus pilot projects, I see proof that not only are the targets achievable, but we have created many profitable business opportunities. By this time next year, the sector will have invested £250 million in funding to match the Government’s £170 million contribution, and our solutions are already baked into £13 billion in public and private sector procurement.

Call to action

My call to action for construction organisations – be they clients, contractors, consultants or suppliers – is to get ahead of the game by scaling our solutions. Customers are demanding change – Highways England’s Net Zero Highways Plan is just one recent example. This year Larry Fink, boss of Blackrock, an organisation with nine trillion dollars of assets under management wrote to his CEOs to say ‘companies with a clear plan to address the transition to net zero will distinguish themselves with their stakeholders’. This must surely resonate in our sector. Years ago Sir John Egan exhorted construction to learn from the car industry about efficiency. Today there is a new lesson from the automotive sector. Tesla was the first car company with a clear net zero plan. Tesla is now worth perhaps more than the whole rest of its sector, and more than five times the combined market cap of the world’s ten largest constructors.

Leadership required

That is why I am asking construction companies to take on leadership of our transformation. To lead by committing to a manufacturing approach to construction, by deploying digital and data-driven processes, and by embedding whole-life value. The Transforming Construction Challenge has laid the foundations for change by defining the value and platform methods, proving their application and shifting public procurement. The Value Toolkit provides a series of integrated activities – supported by tools, resources, and guidance – to drive better outcomes from each investment; while the Platform Design Programme provides open-source interface and performance criteria for a building as a kit of thirteen essential parts.

The Active Building Centre

Alongside creating the foundations for transformed construction, many teams have been piloting and integrating new technologies. These include machine learning, internet of things, clean energy, robotics and automation. The ABC has served a unique role by testing, validating and configuring clean energy technology. The ABC is working to improve energy capture, such as in the coefficient of heat pump performance. Research by the ABC into energy storage (chemical, phase change, batteries, steam) suggests the achievability of lithium-ion levels of energy density at a quarter of the current cost. There are labs and demonstrator projects on site at Swansea and Berkeley optimising clean tech configuration for different building types. The team are also working with several external clients to radically improve the sustainability of their developments. For example in a Flintshire housing development energy bills are being effectively eliminated without increasing the capital cost of the build.

Changing the rules

Confidence in the new approaches to construction has enabled the government to make bold changes to the rules for public procurement. The mandate came with the release of the Construction Playbook in December 2020 and more detail was provided in September 2021 with Transforming Infrastructure Performance: Roadmap to 2030. Many projects are already underway in which transformed construction in being applied to public sector assets: Gen Zero schools use generative design and active building tech to create better learning environments at lower whole life cost. Challenging Space Frontiers in Hospitals applies learning from aerospace to the construction of operating theatres, and the Transport Infrastructure Efficiency Strategy Living Lab is applying platform design to repeatable items such as footbridges.

Perceived barriers

The two biggest barriers to innovation in construction have always been fear of the unknown and lack of confidence that investment in new capabilities will be met with strong demand. Those barriers no longer exist: not only do we have an overwhelming body of evidence proving that the techniques work, but demand is now assured from public and private sector alike. The recent Google Ventures investment of 18.5 million USD in nPlan, one of Transforming Construction’s supported companies, suggests that major business players are starting to take notice.

Sam Stacey was the keynote speaker at the ABC hosted COPGLOS event on the 21.10.21