Tim Clark looks back on the highs and lows of 2023, and ponders what the coming year may have in store for the built environment
As December sweeps to a close and 2024 draws near, it is often the time to cast an eye over what has happened throughout the year, and look ahead to what may come to pass in the next.
The past twelve months could be considered a year of high hopes, and high stakes cancellations – with two news stories standing out.
Arguably the biggest news event of the year occurred in October at the Conservative Party conference when High Speed Two (HS2) had large parts of its previous route scrapped by prime minister Rishi Sunak.
That cancellation has, to a certain extent, knocked confidence in public infrastructure projects, with Eddie Tuttle director of policy, external affairs and research at the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), describing the decision at the time as impacting on the wider sector.
“It is well recognised that the built environment industry works best when it has certainty in policy making and investment,” he said. “Long-term infrastructure projects, like HS2, employ large numbers of skilled workers and apprentices and go some way to securing a pipeline of consistent work for the construction sector.”
What does 2024 have in store for HS2? Well the scheme is still seeking an outcome for Euston – the perennial problem of how to fit a new terminus within the small, and highly valuable land of central London. Contractor Mace said as recently as December that its own plans for a minimal viable product at the site haven’t been taken on.
The government has pledged to ensure private money is used to help build the station. The coming twelve months will (fingers cross) provide some clarity on what future the £5bn+ station project has.
The other story to ripple across the sector and beyond was the susceptibility of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete to degrade and then suddenly collapse.
The material was used widely in school building programmes and prompted a wave of panic in August after safety concerns saw over 100 school buildings closed after a beam collapsed at one school.
The crisis has dissipated somewhat since August, with experts such as Watts Group chair Trevor Rushton stating that not all buildings need to be torn down.
“The mere existence of RAAC does not automatically mean significant structural works or alterations, but it does mean that a careful structural and durability risk assessment is required,” he said.
It can be argued that the entire crisis shone a light on the lack of maintenance for the UK’s school estate – and could be a potential political issue in the coming year, with other areas of the construction sector noting lack of investment in renewals and maintenance beginning to have a visible impact.
Contractor Mace warned that economically, the forecast for the coming year is as gloomy as the December weather.
“With the detail around the crucial planning reforms announced in November’s Autumn Statement yet to be finalised, alongside the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts for declining business and government investment in the longer term, the economic landscape for 2024 appears increasingly uncertain,” it said in its latest quarterly market report.
Andy Beard, global head of cost and commercial management at Mace, said: “With forecasts pointing to ongoing weak economic growth, 2024 looks like it will be another tricky 12 months. While interest rates are likely to have now reached their peak, the expectation is that they will only start to come down gradually in the second half of next year.
Mace’s downbeat predictions were however counterbalanced by data from PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), which has said the UK economy will “turn a corner” in 2024 as inflation eases. It may be fair to expect more of the same in 2024, not a major crash, but stymied or little economic growth on the horizon.
The growing impact of ESG
The importance of ESG principles has also continued to grow in 2023, and this trend can be expected to continue in the coming year as more net-zero deadlines loom.
“Along with the reforms to grid connections we are excited that the UK government is taking forward the implementation of heat network zoning in England under the Energy Bill,” says Alasdair Young, partner and global energy director at engineering, design and advisory practice, Buro Happold.
“We would like to see the associated secondary legislation have the teeth it needs to mandate connection of buildings at scale needed for the plans to work.”
Young also highlights the expected consultation on the new future homes standard 2025, which will push net-zero transition closer still. How existing homes form part of this mix is still uncertain. Retrofit programmes have, historically, been unveiled with big political fanfare but little in terms of real financial muscle.
In the digital realm the ESG agenda has also landed. According to Rory Bergin, partner, sustainable futures at architecture practice HTA Design, new tools to assess sustainable characteristics of buildings are being deployed in the coming year.
“I am excited about the release of Autodesk Forma and its potential to act as an early-stage tool for testing environmental qualities of buildings before they become fixed and difficult to change,” he says.
The new software is also able to be run on a mobile phone, which reduces the need for powerful PCs to handle the processing of designs. “It’s interesting that they [Autodesk] are going fully cloud-based for the software, so you can run a simulation from your phone if you want. Is the end of the power-hungry CAD workstation in sight?”
Politically, the main event for 2024 is set to be the general election. At time of writing the majority of political polls point to a victory for the Labour Party – raising the prospect of which current policies will be continued, and what will be left to wither on the vine in 2024.
Reforms of the National Planning Policy Framework, the implementation of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act, and the rollout of the final stages of the Building Safety Act are, to name a few, of the major legislative areas that could be amended after an election.
The Labour Party’s plans are not fully disclosed, however the party has mooted plans to introduce a new “decent homes standard” which would apply to the private rented sector, invest in the resilience of infrastructure from extreme weather, and deliver clean energy by 2030.
The clean energy option is an intriguing one for Labour, and the construction industry. The (admittedly draft) plans envisage doubling onshore wind capacity, tripling solar capacity and quadrupling offshore wind capacity.
The UK is beginning to realise the capacity for offshore wind, with a record amount of clean energy produced in the run up to Christmas due to storm Pia hitting the country. Wind Farms generated 21.8 gigawatts of electricity in half an hour between 8am and 8:30am on 21 December, representing more than half the country’s energy needs.
Buro Happold’s Young is keen to see further investment. “To drive the transition to net-zero energy we urgently need to unlock private investment in renewable power generation, increased grid capacity and heat networks,” he says.
“The government also needs to set a consistent framework for investment, both public and private, in infrastructure across the built environment including social and health infrastructure, active travel, climate resilience, water systems and public transport.”
Easing planning constraints may be a key area to spur the investment. A report in the Guardian in late December found that even though the moratorium on new onshore wind farms had been dropped, no new applications had been made. The National Infrastructure Commission has urged the government to place onshore wind within the scope of its Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects remit, thus easing some planning constraints. Next year could see more moves in this direction to spur investment.
The march of the smart building also looks to continue in the coming year. As Build in Digital highlighted earlier this month, smart buildings and AI will form a core aspect of the debate over efficiency, safety and design in the coming years, with 2024 being no different.
Here the ESG agenda dovetails with other innovations.
“Sustainability in building operations is also becoming the driving force for utilising smart technologies, since there is little else that can be done to improve the environmental performance of spaces in use,” says Miloš Halečka, innovation director of MiddleCap Real Estate.
This provides an excellent backdrop for innovation, with organisations forced to push boundaries to make their spaces more appealing and efficient. We will therefore see an uptick in the adoption and quality of smart technology next year.
“We know that AI is not the silver bullet to solve all our real estate woes, but it can be a powerful weapon in our arsenal to improve operations, increase efficiency, and enhance the overall experience for office tenants and property owners,” Halečka adds.
Alistair Alison, chief executive of consultancy TFT says that client demand is pushing innovation. “There is a desire and expectation to deliver beyond the traditional building survey and to report on areas such as operational performance, climate change resilience, decarbonisation pathways and health and safety,” he says.
“Ultimately, this is about showing owners how an asset will avoid future obsolescence.”
Is 2024 the year that data rules supreme? Well not quite, as Build in Digital reported from UK Construction Week – there are still a number of major factors limiting the full use of data to provide innovation within the built environment. But change could be on its way.
“In 2024, I believe that the amount of data gathering undertaken will significantly increase, Alison adds.
“That means owners installing metering for energy use and commissioning more in-depth surveys to get a clear picture of existing assets pre-sale, and much better custody of the outputs.”
When it comes to innovations within infrastructure, there are tentative signs that pilot programmes initiated in 2023 will be expanded next year, with major contractors joining forces with smaller firms to adopt innovative new techniques.
One such trial is National Highways’ use of AI to improve the experience of roadworks and minimise disruption.
Balfour Beatty, Costain and Kier are each piloting different schemes which adapt AI to improve road work planning, with the larger firms providing mentoring on how large complex schemes work.
David Taylor, interim managing director for transportation at Costain, said: “Our customers increasingly value working with suppliers who can tackle difficult challenges with a range of skill sets.
“By combining our extensive experience in road planning, construction and customer engagement with innovative technology such as data analytics and AI, we can make essential road network improvements in better, more efficient ways, to the benefit of the UK’s road users and residents.”
Rather than grandiose master plans and ambitious aims to revolutionise construction or energy, small steps and pilot projects may be the way forward in 2024. As always, watch this digital space.
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