Sam Stacey, challenge director, UKRI Transforming Construction, talks to PBC Today about why he took on the role, the key aims of the Transforming Construction Challenge and the future of precision manufacturing and offsite construction
Sam Stacey is leading the Transforming Construction Challenge, which is backed by £170m in research and innovation investment, matched by £250m from industry, to create new construction processes and techniques for building manufacture in the UK.
Prior to joining Innovate UK, he was the director of innovation, industrialisation and business improvement at Skanska UK.
What made you want to get involved in transforming construction? And why is now the right time?
My passion for transforming construction probably dates back to my teens. I knew by then that I wanted to work in construction and I strongly felt that post-war construction was not responding to the needs of society – poor planning, poor design and leading to crime and urban decay.
Through my career, I’ve gradually pieced together the skills and experience that enable me to lead the change we need. I’ve worked as an engineer, architect, design manager and most recently innovation director at Skanska.
At Skanska, I was able to apply many of the techniques referred to as Industry 4.0 – interoperability of components, digital modelling, robotic assistance and distributed autonomous machines. I saw that they represented a fantastic set of tools to improve construction. We at UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) have this incredible opportunity now with the technologies, plus industry and the government support to fundamentally improve what we build and the way we build it.
How significant was it for construction to be recognised in the sector deals alongside industries like Life Sciences, Automotive and Aerospace as being essential pillars of the wider economy?
Construction industry turnover in the UK, at £110bn, is bigger than aerospace and automotive combined but has been trapped in a cycle of low innovation and low productivity. Other sectors have received generous government support that has contributed to revolutions in performance.
Construction is the last great unreformed industry, and the Sector Deal is enabling us to address that. Partially due to the ongoing attention is given to Building Information Modelling (BIM) and to site safety – the UK is already a world leader in construction performance – but there is the opportunity to do much more. The Sector Deal has brought the industry together as never before, aligning the aims of clients, suppliers, designers and the users of buildings. This could not have been done without the Sector Deal.
What are the key aims of the Transforming Construction Challenge?
The explicit aims of the challenge are to achieve the targets of the government’s 2025 Construction Strategy, published in July 2013; namely the third reduction in construction costs, a 50% improvement in the construction trade balance, and 50% reductions in speed and carbon emissions.
In the process of addressing those targets, we are determined however to achieve much wider benefits – including higher wages, offsite fabrication jobs in neglected areas of the country, fewer vehicle movements and less construction waste. The beauty of the strategy is that all these aims are mutually supportive.
What has been achieved so far?
We’re making great progress. UKRI has so far provided £129m of funding to the industry with a further £36m upcoming for collaborative research and innovation and development projects.
Funding is being used on over 100 companies of all sizes to work on solutions in collaboration with academia. Particular highlights include the SEISMIC project, which has developed standard frames for schools that will meet the targets listed above. These are already being procured at scale as part of the Department for Education’s Generation 5 programme. Another highlight is the Advanced Industrial Methods for the Construction of Homes (AIMCH) – a collaboration that will improve the delivery of over 35,000 homes per year.
What gives me confidence that we will continue to go from strength to strength is the support we’ve had across the industry. Many fantastic people that have joined the programme – my own core team, and the teams at the Active Building Centre and the Construction Innovation Hub.
Construction has long had an image of being slow to innovate and even resistant to change – how can that be overcome?
The main barrier to innovation in construction has been lack of integration. We are addressing that by supporting value-based procurement, developing digital configurator tools and demonstrating how the use of industrialised techniques across the value chain.
The Construction Innovation Hub will be the main driver for this. In order to encourage companies to collaborate, systems for the collection and sharing of data are being implemented, including the use of the internet of things. UKRI is also helping to develop artificial intelligence in construction, and the enhancement of skills, particularly in the digital arena.
Where do you think precision manufacturing and offsite construction can have the biggest impact?
Without doubt, precision manufacturing has a lot to offer all areas of construction, but the early impact will be seen with schools and housing. Schools will be a quick win because we have a secure pipeline of demand, a clear line through to user benefits – in this case educational attainment – and a government client. We’ll be using schools to demonstrate the improvements in efficiency and quality that can be achieved with a platform-based approach to construction.
We want to get to the point where precision-manufacturing of buildings and infrastructure is so obviously better that it will become the default approach.
What is the role of BIM in improving not only how buildings are designed and put together, but their whole life performance?
BIM provides two things: accurate timely information and more certain outcomes. With BIM you have the opportunity to optimise both the production process and the way in which the users will interact with the building.
Each BIM project yields data that can be fed back into improving future projects. The modelling of the construction process enables the integration of the lean principles that have transformed value creation in other manufacturing sectors.
How do you see the future of BIM and the emergence of concepts like the digital twin?
The future of BIM will be based on what we call the Gemini Principles, created by the Centre for Digital Built Britain. These principles define how digital twins must be used for the public good, enable value creation and provide insight into the built environment. Trust and openness are implicit, such that wide ranges of organisations can work effectively together to produce better buildings. The Transforming Construction programme will drive the uptake of the Gemini Principles across the industry, and really turbo-charge the process of innovation and continuous improvement.
Where do you see digital technology having the biggest impacts in construction going forward?
Longer-term, it is through the application of machine learning (AI) that digital technology will have the greatest impact on construction. Today we navigate our way through construction projects like a driver who has a long journey to make, some knowledge of the route and an out of date map.
In the future, construction will be carried out as though we had a state-of-the-art Sat Nav to guide us. Continuously updated information will be fed into the system, covering everything relevant to the success of the project. Powerful computers will process that data to provide clear guidance to everyone working on the project about what they should do at any given moment. We will always know exactly where we are going!
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