For an industry still, largely, employing the same methods of construction as it did five decades ago, advances in technology represent an opportunity to explore more efficient ways of working

Sarah Richardson

Picture a construction sector in which work on the tops of buildings is done remotely by flying robots, removing the need for scaffolding. This may sound like something from an Isaac Asimov novel, but in fact it could be the reality of the sites of the future, if a group of researchers in Switzerland have their way.

As we report in this feature, these robots, or “quadrocopters”, as they are known, are just one of a host of intriguing technologies being developed that have the potential to transform the way construction works. And although a flying robot revolution may be a way off, other developments are far closer to making a tangible impact: the first 3D-printed house is set to complete later this year, while modular building is being given a new lease of life by the enhanced capture and management of data under BIM.

For an industry which is still, largely, employing the same methods of construction as it did five decades ago, these advances in technology represent an opportunity to explore more efficient ways of working. The industry’s comparative lack of modernisation is repeatedly bemoaned by government. And in the new reality in which the sector is expected to coax its margins out of reduced budgets, particularly on public sector work, the need for reform has never been greater.

In any technology’s infancy, investing in it is likely to be prohibitively expensive for most firms. Take the huge investment Laing O’Rourke has made in its off-site factory in Steetley, on the gamble that demand will eventually make production cheaper through economies of scale.

But with time, and a conducive policy environment, which pushes companies to invest in technologies capable of cutting cost and time, innovations such as those that we profile this week could become mainstream. And this is made more likely by underlying shifts in the way that construction is operating, with the increasing digitalisation of construction processes.

It is the policy environment, however, which is key. We have seen this starkly illustrated in both a positive sense (with the high take-up of BIM) and a negative (the cuts to investment in green technologies made by contractors as a result of delays to the Green Deal).

So the only way any new technology will stand a chance of becoming part of day-to-day reality is if its take-up is explicitly and directly driven by its biggest customer, the government - either by mandating the technology or, much more likely, the outcome it is designed to address. Until that happens, those flying robots may struggle to lift themselves out of the realms of science fiction.

Sarah Richardson, editor

Agenda 15

Building is calling for your views on the policy changes that would create the most stable environment for the construction sector over the coming years.

As part of our new Agenda 15 campaign, we have launched a three-month industry wide consultation, and we would like your views to inform a manifesto with which we will lobby politicians in the run up to the 2015 election. On page 22 you can read some of the suggestions put forward so far, by industry figures including Mace chief executive Mark Reynolds and Murray Rowden of Turner & Townsend.

To contribute, visit our dedicated page on the website at