Current economic and environmental uncertainties provide an opportunity for all of us to reconsider what we are doing – and why, writes Andrew Ruck

Recently I ordered some wood flooring for my living room. The price I was quoted was £42 a square metre. I accepted.

Subsequently the supplier told me the price had now gone up by 20% – non-negotiable. My builders’ merchant is limiting the number of bags of cement I can buy and the timeframe for materials arriving for my DIY project at home is uncertain. 

Our decorator is fully booked up until the end of the month and he is currently working seven days a week trying to keep up.

Materials shortages, labour shortages, shipping container price inflation, uncertain delivery times, higher risks for everyone involved in construction … all this makes for worrying times. But, is this actually all a very welcome and a timely shot in the arm for the construction industry on its way to a lower carbon world?

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The interconnectedness and systemic fragility of our supply chains across the globe has been exposed in numerous ways recently. No less an example has been the impact of a containership getting stuck in the Suez canal and arriving in the UK four months late.

After the Second World War, the UK construction industry faced some similar challenges. It prioritised lean design as materials were in short supply.

Brick shortages led to the proliferation of concrete-framed buildings in housing. Prefabrication and system building was all the rage. Speedy delivery … does it all sound familiar?

In a post-Brexit, potentially post-pandemic world, we should learn lessons from the postwar period

This was all a necessity born out of the need to build back better (sic) … Engineers were pioneering ways to minimise the use of materials and had to make efficient use of what was available.

Daringly thin concrete-shell structures achieving enormous spans were de rigeur, reinforcement in slabs was only used where the concrete was in tension. Steel was in short supply.

In a post-Brexit, potentially post-pandemic world, we should learn lessons from the postwar period. Fundamentally the drivers today are very similar to back then.

They needed to build more housing stock to satisfy demand, they needed to use less material and find ways of doing it using fewer people on site. They wanted better quality buildings, they wanted to create a better world.

Essentially the current turbulence is a provocation to us all and serious questions are being asked of the construction industry. Does one wait until inflationary pressures subside and buy development in more economically favourable times? Or does one press on regardless and pay the premium associated with building now and tackle the risk and uncertainty head on?

Do we continue in the same vein as the 20th-century construction industry beholden to our staples of new concrete, timber, steel and brick but try to incrementally steer them towards a more environmentally responsible direction - slow as that progress may be?

Or does one seize the opportunity driven through current necessity to deliver a massive paradigm shift in our approach to construction and development?

I would suggest that perhaps the planets are, in fact, aligning for us in a positive sense. Our current materials shortages, labour challenges and the uncertain world in which to develop, coupled with climate crisis create the perfect storm.

It is for all professionals in the industry to challenge ourselves and ask ourselves the really tough questions

The conditions are there for seismic change. Necessity has always been the mother of change and it is for all professionals in the industry to challenge ourselves and ask ourselves the really tough questions. So where are the answers in all of this uncertainty and in these nervous times?

Do we need to build this project and, if we do, how should we do it? What’s out there that we can re-use or re-purpose as part of our project?

As “pre-loved” clothing is becoming increasingly trendy, so “pre-loved” buildings or public spaces or infrastructure have to become our mainstay. The answers come from the challenge that the climate crisis poses.

Localism has to form a major part. We must seek to source materials locally; we must seek to establish more local labour markets and perhaps through the lens of the engineer we simply have to use less in what we do: less material; lower quantities of greenhouse gases pumped into the environment as a result of what we are designing; and perhaps more time spent thinking about it and how we achieve this.

Better still, find things that exist that can be reused: Civic Engineers is currently looking at aircraft wings and turbine blades to see how they might become roofs. There is a lot of structure in them that can be made use of.

The current situation has prompted me to ask the question: do I really need to do this?

Our industry’s economic models do not yet account for the changes that will have to be made, so at present it still does feel like we are trying to maintain the previous normal and tiptoe around the edges. The proposed introduction to the Building Regulations of Part Z – Whole Life Carbon is an urgent legislative mechanism that is to be applauded and cannot come quickly enough. Carbon calculation is now a routine part of our lexicon and daily activity.

As for my domestic DIY challenges, the current situation has prompted me to ask the questions: do I really need to do this? Is it a necessity or is it a whim? What other motives is it driven by?

If I decide to do it, how can I do it better? How can I avoid certain materials? What are the alternatives? Can I find something from elsewhere that I can use rather than buy new?

Overall I am being forced to think longer and harder - and I think this is a good thing.

Andrew Ruck is a director at Civic Engineers