Construction is unlikely to produce many Nobel prize winners.
Most of its firms live in a world where lowest costs win projects and in any case they are not the natural habitats of research scientists. But even taking that into account, the signs look depressing. In a survey carried out by the Chartered Institute of Building, more than half the respondents said they spent less than £10,000 a year on research. The Office for National Statistics in January found that the industry as a whole spent £33m on R&D, less than 0.02% of its turnover. Agriculture, in contrast, invested 12%.
Of course, there are points of contention in statistics like this. Do all those hours spent devising solutions for bespoke buildings count as R&D? What about product development by manufacturers? But the stats are still worrying because they coincide with a fall in government funding. Over the years we’ve seen the old Building Research Establishment privatised and the industry has gradually been denied all access to the DTI’s R&D budget.
They’re worrying, too, because we’re in an amazing cycle of growth. As tender prices undergo their fastest rise in seven years and output races ahead (pages 11 and 58-60), those with long memories may cast them back to 1988. But it seems that our heads are so jammed into the day-to-day problems of delivery that we’re forgetting the lessons of that year. Innovation improves productivity, which increases capacity, which prevents overheating, which keeps the industry’s products affordable – as well as durable and sustainable. How are we ever going to establish the best solutions for low energy buildings, for instance, if we can’t fund research into their whole-life carbon footprints?
The opportunity to change this picture is being provided by a review of science and innovation policy being carried out by Lord Sainsbury. A loud cry for help directed at the parliamentary select committee looking into construction wouldn’t go amiss, either. But if that’s of no avail, surely the time has come to find mechanisms to support and fund joint research – however unappealing the industry may find the idea.
The ghosts at the feast
It seemed we’d never get there, but in two weeks Wembley will at last host a cup final. The game marks the end of a story that has contained some of the bitterest rows, most colourful characters and most impressive feats of engineering in recent history. But before signing off, we wanted to remember the specialists who were stretchered off the field, or who limped on through extra time. Some had a run of poor contracts; others struggled with delays, payment, disruption or just the sheer scale of the job. It’s a timely reminder that when megaprojects get into trouble the bigger firms can recover, but for construction’s small guys it can mean the final whistle.
Denise Chevin, editor