How can we create a construction revolution?

Sunday 3 November, 16:0017:15, Auditorium 2Battle for the Economy

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On his first day in office as prime minister, Boris Johnson announced plans to put ‘rocket boosters’ under investment in order to tackle the chronic housing shortage and secure vital new infrastructure, such as high–speed rail lines and superfast broadband.

The aim of starting a ‘new golden age’ is certainly laudable. But critics have accused Johnson of ‘boosterism’ – a hyperbolic attempt to alter perceptions while leaving the fundamentals untouched. They point out that previous administrations also aimed to transform construction, but to little avail. Three years ago, the UK government-commissioned Farmer Review investigated the current and future state of the industry. The report, Modernise or Die, was a damning exposé of UK construction’s ‘lack of innovation and collaboration as well as its non-existent research and development (R&D) culture’. Over twenty years ago, another government review, the Egan Report, complained of a lack of ‘innovation and… skilled and experienced teams’ and the need for ‘more efficient research and development’. Plus ça change?

Everyone seems to agree that innovation is crucial to the resurgence of the construction sector. And yet, for all the fine words and government initiatives, the construction industry continues to languish in the doldrums. One researcher states that ‘by the third quarter of the century, construction had achieved some productive advance, but nothing comparable with the industries which had led the country through the Industrial Revolution’.
Yet there was a brief period after the Second World War when new prefabricated techniques were almost commonplace. According to Peter Barry, a firm of chartered surveyors, between 1945 and 1955 ‘around 20 per cent of new housing was system-built, amounting to some 500,000 units, with a further 750,000 units being constructed between 1955 and 1970’.

Today, however, we still sanctify age-old construction methods. According to one report, a constant 85 to 92 per cent of new housing has been constructed using traditional brick/block masonry construction, a labour-intensive mode of building that has ostensibly remained the same for centuries. Essentially, clay raw material is dug from the ground, formed in moulds, placed in kilns and fired into bricks. These are then transported across the country where armies of labourers work for weeks and months, in sun and rain, to place one on top of another. The Roman architect Vitruvius wrote about this process some 2,000 years ago.

If innovation is required, is this a good place to start? After all, while the UK has been slow to innovate technologically, other countries have made strides in adopting new methods such as modular construction. Yet, it seems important to recognise that if such an innovation revolution is to happen, then it is not going to be painless. There needs to be a shakeout of the old and an embrace of the new. Instead of seeing this as a threat, it should be a chance to improve productivity and working conditions in an industry that is stuck in the past.

Of course, there are incredible innovations happening in the construction industry: from drone surveys to augmented reality, sustainable materials to driverless bulldozers, information modelling to automated products. What is the best way to take this further? McKinsey & Co report that the construction industry is one of the least digitised sectors, with IT spend typically below one per cent of revenues. Is digitisation the missing link? Why aren’t robots manufacturing housing in giant factories to be transported to site? Why is there so little investment in 3D printed construction? Where are the new materials and processes, and what needs to be done in order to create them?

As the Egan Report declared in 1998, ‘we are issuing a challenge to the construction industry to commit itself to change’. Is this the moment for action? If so, should the Government, public agencies or private firms take the lead? And if innovation requires political will and conscious planning for results to mean anything, what plans should the government and the industry make to shake things up?