Every contractor wants to be innovative, but how do you do it? Greg Verhoef says the first step is to take a critical look at yourself – then think about standardisation and sustainability

Never Waste a Good Crisis, Andrew Wolstenholme’s recent report into the state of the construction industry, set out 22 ways that contractors, the government and clients can improve the way they all do business. Although sustainability is at the top of the list, the report also warns contractors not to expect clients to lead innovation over the next five years, because most will be too cash-strapped to push for radical procurement solutions. Instead, they’ll just have to do it themselves.

Contractors have a good reason for taking the Balfour Beatty man’s advice: survival. This is especially true of firms like ours, which are fairly low down the industry’s food chain. Creating innovative products can make a real difference to whether we sink or swim. But how to do it? Warren Buffett, the legendary American investor, said: “The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” Well, all firms fall into habits and the first step in coming up with innovations is to recognise what they are. We have been trying to do that since the recession began. You might be interested to hear what we’ve been doing to keep afloat.

First, look at the way the work is organised. Clients and contractors naturally want to deal with streamlined supply chains and co-ordinate with fewer trades and subcontractors. Szerelmey used to be a stone contractor that did nothing but construct the outer fabric of a building. Now we’ve turned ourselves into a company that deals with more elements of the facade. We have developed systems and methods of applying stone on facades and floors that speed up the development process and the number of trades on site. Speed equals cost savings in our business, which naturally benefits all involved.

One element is a lightweight stone wall system, developed in partnership with Swedish company Ruukki Construction, which enables us to construct large, off-site prefabricated wall panels with environmentally sound, non-combustible materials. This, in effect, gives the client a complete stone wall including insulation and dampproofing. This process may not provide the high standard of finish you get from traditional hand-set stone masonry, but it enables the client to close the envelope of the building while still creating a finish that has the feel that stone provides.

The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken. all firms fall into habits and the first step to coming up with innovations is to recognise what they are

We have also developed our own raised stone flooring. We are not the first into this market – the Construction Products Association and Build Offsite came together earlier this year to create a list of generic specifications for a suite of floor cassettes enabling clients to choose from floors built in several sizes, weights, tolerances and materials. However, we have learned from others and adapted our own ideas to an existing application that will provide the same ingredients of flexibility and speed of delivery that naturally translates into reduced costs.

So, although we can’t create every idea ourselves, we can improve and streamline the ones that others come up with, with the objective of improving delivery.

Innovation is the key to providing us and others with opportunities in the current conditions. There are many other areas where progress can be made, and the drives towards standardisation and sustainability will ensure that our industry and our specialisations will not stay the same; we have to develop new ideas and innovate to create opportunity. In our own way, like many other small companies seeking to survive, we are creating new ideas and solutions to reduce costs, be more efficient and deliver a better product to our clients.

Warren Buffett also said: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who has been swimming naked.” That is the last thing I want for our industry; we have to clothe ourselves in progress and innovation.