Innovating in the sustainable construction sector

While most other industries have undergone tremendous changes over the past few decades and have reaped the benefits of process, product and service innovations, the construction sector has been hesitant to fully embrace the latest innovation opportunities open to it. This can be attributed to various internal and external challenges: the persistent fragmentation of the industry, the ‘race to the bottom’ culture largely driven by public procurement, inadequate collaboration between the players, the sector’s difficulty in adopting and adapting to new technologies, decades of under-investment in training, the difficulties in recruiting a talented and future-ready workforce and insufficient knowledge transfer from project to project, among others.

Key to the industry’s success will be to identify how it can innovate to address these challenges and to understand that incremental change is not an option. Instead, far-reaching challenges or radical goals need to be defined that demand disruptive out-of-the-box solutions and execution. So, can this be achieved?

Our starting point is good. The West Midlands has a strong and thriving sustainable construction sector and this was emphasised by the publication of last year’s West Midlands Science and Innovation Audit, which identified this sector as one of the region’s four main market strengths.

This is where the Innovation Alliance comes in – how can we help to encourage this thriving sector to innovate, given the potential we have in the West Midlands? What are the barriers and gateways to innovating? What support is required?

We convened a workshop on 13 February in Birmingham that gave an opportunity for sustainable construction contractors, consultants and academics – in other words, the experts – to consider these questions and help us to determine what extra support they may need to innovate. This could include their approach to design, risk and cost whilst also recognising the need to continue to meet professional and regulatory standards.

Despite the difficulties and risks that the industry faces, innovation is happening in various parts of the country.  Iconic buildings such as the Shard and the Gherkin and many other, less obvious, sustainable or novel projects mean that someone somewhere is getting the balance right.  The impetus behind modern methods of construction and the work being done by R&D departments across the industry and in the university sector – from new materials to driverless vehicles, modular build to robotic interventions – show that the technology exists and in many cases is already improving the project supply chain. The Innovation Alliance can also use these national good practice examples and leading organisations in the sector, such as bre who spoke at the workshop, to help inject innovation into the West Midlands and allow this attitude to flourish and become the norm in our thriving sustainable construction sector.

We hope that this local, bottom-up activity enhanced by the Innovation Alliance can be supplemented and supported by national initiatives, for example last year’s publication of the government’s Industrial Strategy, which was developed in strategic partnership with the Construction Industry Council. This was welcomed by the West Midlands Combined Authority and is supplemented by the Construction Sector Deal, which is set to provide £170 million in the Transforming Construction Programme that aims to deliver sustainable, quality infrastructure and housing more quickly and at reduced cost to the taxpayer, while boosting the skills of construction workers and training the next generation of workers.

This shows that the government is beginning to identify the industry as a key driver for growth, evidenced by the vital contribution it makes to the UK economy: it adds £138 billion a year, contributes 8% of the GDP and employs over 3.1 million workers.

The workshop on 13 February provided a platform to bring together the national and local contexts and invited all stakeholders as industry professionals, academics and experts in the industry to join in the discussion by sharing knowledge and approaches to the major industry challenges. It was the first opportunity for organisations to become part of the journey of transforming the way the sector designs, builds, operates and maintains the infrastructure around us in the West Midlands. We now aim to maintain the conversation and identify where the Alliance can really add value without duplicating existing efforts.

Initially, we invite construction companies to join our long-running Innovative Low Carbon Working Group, which provides an opportunity for cross-sector and cross-thematic working to deliver a low carbon future for the West Midlands. Meanwhile, if you are in the industry and are looking for opportunities to innovate, get in touch with us to see how we can help get you involved and join the momentum in what is an exciting time for the West Midlands sustainable construction sector.

(Authors: Noel Street, 3DREID; Alan Carr, Sustainability West Midlands)