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Transforming Construction: Building a sector fit for the future

by Sion Geschwindt
Transforming construction: Building a sector fit for the future

As the UKRI’s Transforming Construction Challenge tapers off this year, Innovation Lead Hannah Gibson reflects on one of its flagship projects, the role of emerging technologies, and the importance of up-skilling the workforce and attracting new talent

Over the coming decades, the UK construction industry faces a monumental task: to build low-carbon, resilient, affordable infrastructures faster and better than ever before.

The government plans to spend a whopping £600bn on infrastructure and £44bn for homes by 2030, but chronic labour and skills shortages and poor productivity are bogging the industry down.

Thankfully, the shift to digital technologies and offsite manufacturing is helping improve the overall efficiency of the construction process.

But technology is only part of the solution. Retaining and up-skilling the current workforce, as well as attracting new and diverse talent, will likely make all the difference.

This vision for a sector ‘fit for the future’ was set out in the 2018 Construction Sector Deal, which gave rise to the Transforming Construction Challenge – a programme designed to channel R&D investment into modern methods of construction (MMC) and digital processes.

Transforming construction

Innovate UK, a branch of the UKRI, invested £170m into the challenge, matched by £250m from industry – bringing together contractors, supply chain, innovators, government, clients, and the research community.

Launched in 2018, the programme is tapering off between March and September this year. A total of 52 investments have been made, with 15 still completing their route to market.

“It’s been an exciting four years since the launch of the challenge,” says Hannah Gibson, UKRI’s Transforming Construction Challenge innovation lead. “The investments have covered everything from robotics to net-zero homes, and across the full scope of the building process, from design to post-build evaluation.”

A big focus of the challenge was exploring ways to lower the carbon footprint of the housing sector, which, according to the Centre for Sustainable Energy, contributes 27% of total UK emissions.

“In a way, the pandemic bought a sense of urgency to accelerate digital transformation and adopt modern methods of construction in order to deliver low-carbon, quality homes – both affordably and sustainably,” says Gibson.

“COP26 was a big reminder of the urgency to decarbonise the sector as a whole, and the work of the challenge has really provided a blueprint of what is possible.”

Another key objective of the challenge was looking at ways to maximise the broader benefits that buildings bring to society – known as ‘whole-life value’.

“Whole-life value is all about considering the end users of a project and how to maximise the environmental, social, and economic benefits across a building’s lifecycle – rather than just opting for the cheapest solution,” says Gibson.

The government’s 2021 Transforming Infrastructure Performance: Roadmap to 2030 has developed a model that supports the whole-life value approach, drawing a direct line between the outcomes we need as a society – characterised by the UN Sustainable Development Goals – and the decisions we make to build, maintain, and renew our infrastructure.

“COP26 was a big reminder of the urgency to decarbonise the sector”

The Construction Playbook builds on this principle by setting out how the public sector can get projects and programmes right from the start, embedding social value into the foundations of procurement processes. This encourages private-sector clients to prioritise high quality, sustainable, resilient infrastructure – not just the bottom line.

These policies are particularly important given that the UK is in the midst of a social housing crisis, with only 6,500 social homes built in England last year – despite a waiting list of 1.1 million people.

According the housing and homelessness charity, Shelter, we need to deliver 3.1 million more social homes over the next 20 years to meet demand.

Fortunately, contractors are no longer bound to brick-and-mortar technologies to deliver the homes that we need; rapid advancements in modern methods of construction (MMC) and digitalisation over the past few years have changed the scope of what is possible.

Building hope

Located next to the green hearth of St George Park in Bristol sits Hope Rise – the first affordable, fully net-zero housing development in the UK.

Hope Rise was born from the Enabling Housing Innovation for Inclusive Growth programme, led by YTKO and including Bristol City Council, Bristol Housing Festival, BRE, Arcadis, Unit 9, and nine leading modular housing companies.

The programme, funded in part by Innovate UK, aimed to address three major challenges: a housing crisis, the climate crisis, and a construction skills shortage.

Hope Rise was completed in December 2020, and has demonstrated the potential of manufacturing processes, combined with the latest low-carbon technology and materials, to solve the affordable housing shortage.

Built by London-based modular provider ZED PODS using MMC, the development comprises 11 energy-efficient modular homes equipped with solar panels; quiet micro air-source heat pumps for low-energy heating; controlled ventilation; triple glazing; LED lighting; and energy-efficient appliances.

“Many of the residents at Hope Rise were leaving care and at risk of homelessness, but this project provided affordable homes that are fit for the future – in terms of net-zero carbon, space efficiency and affordability,” says Gibson, who believes Hope Rise exemplifies the principle of whole-life value.

Key to the success of Hope Rise was the ZED PODS offsite manufacturing process, which enabled the houses to be delivered faster than traditional methods.

Hope Rise used two build systems – Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) and steel frames which, according to ZED PODS, is a rare combination in the MMC sector. Using CLT means 90% of the building work was completed in the factory and then transported flat packed to the site.

The ZED PODS being lowered into place at Hope Rise

The use of MMC on the Hope Rise development meant that the homes could be built on the steel frames in around 5 days and the car park could stay operational with minimal disruption for local people and businesses. 

ZED PODS also utilised BIM technology extensively across the build, linking models to the schedule, contracts and reports to create a golden thread of data and information – reducing mistakes and minimising downtime.

Gibson believes that Hope Rise offers a blueprint to cities across the country, and the world, who are looking to build homes better, faster, and more sustainably. However, she stresses that hiring retaining and up-skilling the existing workforce, while attracting new talent, will be key to scaling up these kinds of projects.

Attracting talent

A labour and skills shortage has been a growing concern for construction companies, and as the post-COVID rush to build back better sits squarely on the industry’s shoulders, the problem becomes more pressing.

A lack of skills, especially to negotiate often complex new technologies and systems, reduces productivity and ultimately drives up costs for construction companies.

According to the Construction Skills Network forecast for 2021-25 published by the CITB, the construction industry will need to hire 217,000 workers by 2025 to meet rising demand. A significant proportion of these new hires will emerge from apprenticeship programs – which many regard to be one of the main solutions to the sector’s labour woes.

As the secretary of state for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, said during this year’s National Apprenticeship Week 2022: “Apprenticeships offer people of all ages the chance to earn while they learn and build a successful career, while also delivering the skilled workforce this country needs to build back stronger.”

Attracting and mentoring new talent is an essential step to bridging to skills gap, but so is up-skilling the current workforce. Mace’s report, Moving to Industry 4.0: A Skills Revolution, suggests that to keep the existing workforce, there will need to be an emphasis on re-skilling workers to enable them to manage the technology that replaced their original role.

Gibson emphasises that the digital transformation will open up new opportunities, bringing demand for different skills, tech knowledge, and attracting a whole new range of professionals.

She concluded: “The transforming construction challenge has demonstrated that building at the pace and scale necessary, and putting whole-life value at the core of every project, is no pipe dream.

“What we need now is strong leadership from both the private and public sectors to encourage the growth of a sustainable, diverse, and resilient construction industry that makes the next generation think, ‘I want to do that when I grow up.'”

Main image: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

Read next: Modulous: Cracking construction’s biggest conundrum 

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