Following publication of the Transforming Construction report, Professor Cam Middleton, director of the University of Cambridge Laing O’Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering & Technology, reflects on the current opportunity for the industry to make change happen in a post-Covid-19 world
There is no shortage of advice on how to transform the construction industry, with a plethora of reports dating back to Egan and Latham in the late 1990s through to the more recent Farmer and Jansen. While there is a considerable consensus in many of these reports, few of their recommendations have been implemented. Technological advancement has been slow in construction and the industry lags behind many other sectors in terms of productivity, efficiency and sustainability.
In addition to the recommendations made in industry reports, UK universities generate many exciting research ideas to address challenges in construction providing tools, technologies and methodologies designed to support the sector.
When will we finally turn this accumulated wisdom into practice? Perhaps the shock and disruption of the Covid-19 crisis will provide a once in a lifetime opportunity to implement truly disruptive change to our industry.
The current pandemic has forced us all to question accepted norms and embrace innovative alternatives to conventional practices. The planning, design, construction and commissioning of the Nightingale Hospitals in an extraordinarily short timeframe demonstrates what can be achieved when there is alignment on objectives and desired outcomes, and offers a glimpse of what is possible with a more collaborative approach to construction.
The pandemic has also focused our attention on the need for greater adaptability and resilience in our built environment as the routine of our daily lives has been disrupted, leading to drastic changes throughout the economy, including where we work, how we travel and what we do in our leisure time.
Perhaps more significantly, the current crisis has awakened the entire industry to the realisation that it is not Covid-19 but climate change that is a far greater existential threat to us all in the longer term – and that the construction industry must and can play a key role in implementing the enormous changes necessary to deliver a zero carbon and sustainable future in a very short time frame.
Covid-19 has shown that we can quickly accommodate and implement dramatic changes in our industry. This requires clients to work in partnership with the rest of the industry to trial innovations and Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) in relation to funding, procurement, design, delivery and operation. Collecting, curating and analysing data will be key to success as will the evaluation of MMC in order to maximise the value and uptake of these new methods at scale.
Transformation happens when change is driven by industry, policy and academia and the work of the Laing O’Rourke Centre for Engineering Construction & Technology, at the University of Cambridge, supports this tripartite approach. Our recently published milestone report, titled Transforming Construction, comes at a pivotal time for the industry and marks 10 years of collaboration between the Centre and strategic industry partner, Laing O’Rourke.
Agents of change
Our Centre focuses on three core approaches aligned to industry needs to deliver effective change: education and skills; research and innovation; and thought leadership and policy. Education and skills are crucial for long-term, large-scale change and the Centre’s Construction Engineering Master’s degree (CEM) is an advanced leadership programme designed specifically for experienced industry professionals across the entire breadth of the construction sector. The Master’s students combine learning with their professional roles bringing opportunity to develop insights and new skills for the direct benefit of their own organisations – and beyond.
The professional students hold senior roles or have been identified by their employers as emerging and future leaders, and the Centre equips them with critical thinking skills that they can apply to problems in industry to make better-informed decisions and reach effective and sustainable solutions. Working for key businesses across the sector, our professional graduates develop strategies and implement change that has impact in the wider industry.
Our research portfolio places strong emphasis on technology and innovation, and covers the three strategic areas stated by the government’s Construction Sector Deal as key for delivering transformative goals: digital, offsite manufacturing and whole-life asset performance. Our vision prioritises the strategies and actions needed to achieve net-zero carbon and mitigate climate change and the Centre’s ever-growing body of research is aimed at generating an evidence base to inform key policy decisions in government and industry.
Lord Kelvin has been attributed with the quote: “When you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it”. To this end, the Centre has recently completed a detailed study, which has been published by CIRIA as CIRIA guide C792, commonly referred to as the Jansen Report after its lead author. This report proposes a consistent set of metrics for evaluating value across a range of impacts including not only traditional measures such as cost, time, quality and safety, but also wider social and environmental benefits. Although focused on the use of offsite construction for schools, it provides a framework that could form the foundation for a consistent set of performance metrics that could be adopted across the construction industry.
Benefits of change
Calls from organisations across government, industry and academia to adopt digital processes to modernise construction are increasing in intensity and accord. The Construction Leadership Council’s Recovery to Restart, Reset and Reinvent embeds “sustaining economic growth through the adoption of digital and manufacturing technologies to consistently deliver low carbon, sustainable and better-quality outputs and outcomes” in its plan.
The Construction Innovation Hub brings together expertise from the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), the Building Research Establishment (BRE) and the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) to change the way buildings and infrastructure are designed, manufactured, integrated and connected. It is working around core themes of value, manufacturing, assurance and digital.
The potential benefits from adopting Modern Methods of Construction and digital processes are widely recognised and significant for the sector: improved productivity and resilience; whole-life asset performance; and better-informed decision-making to enhance social, economic and environmental outcomes for all.
There has never been a better time to put the accumulated wisdom of industry and world-leading research into practice to the benefit of the UK construction sector. We have access to some of the most exciting technological developments in history, with the fourth industrial revolution ushering in a disruptive wave of technologies including virtual and mixed reality, artificial intelligence and machine learning and, potentially, quantum computing.
MMCs can support the sector to deliver much-needed high quality buildings and infrastructure that provides social value and drives the decarbonisation of the construction industry. Applying digital technologies to reduce risk and increase value brings unprecedented opportunities to enhance the functionality and performance of our built environment while dramatically reducing the demand on resources. Data and advanced analytics will be the currency of future construction, as it is already the currency of today for companies such as Amazon, Google and Facebook.
Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, describes in his book, Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone, how he took the company on a radical journey, transforming it from a business selling PC software and hardware to one focusing on cloud computing services generated through emerging digital technologies. The process of recovering from the effects of the pandemic offers the construction sector opportunity to reset and align priorities, set carbon reduction and sustainability at the top of the agenda, and drive the adoption of MMC and digital tools at scale. It’s time to act – let’s work together and make change happen.
Freely download the Methodology for quantifying the benefits of offsite construction report: www.ciria.org/c792
Professor Cam Middleton
University of Cambridge Laing O’Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering & Technology
+44 (0) 1223 3 32812