Failing to shout about and share good practice is as big a problem as lack of investment in R&D

Simon Allford

That the UK construction industry fails to adequately invest in research is an accepted truth. But as ever there is another story: one of a huge intellectual investment in new ways of thinking and making. The problem is that it is too rarely captured and shared.

This contradictory commitment was made very clear to me recently when advising and judging two ideas competitions. The entrants to Open Reception, invested in by Derwent London and office Concierge, explored an extraordinary range and scale of important design solutions. They investigated the impact that smartphone technology will have on the process of arrival. They explored the further breakdown of the boundaries between work and play. The hot topic of ever-increasing bike usage generated new ideas of the spaces of reception, automated parking, bike concierge, repair, maintenance, cleaning: clearly we have not yet resolved where the bike journey ends. The most successful entrants also indicate that human interaction is still essential: Studio Seilern’s winning entry dissolved the barrier between street, reception and work in a world inhabited by people, plants and butterflies.

The other half of the truth is that an extraordinary amount of collaborative research goes on in the construction industry

The Wates Foundation/RIBA ideas competition looked to fuel debate on the suburban and architectural possibilities of the essential, but little understood private rented sector. Presented with the constraints of a housebuilder’s typical suburban site layout and mix, a commentary on current considerations and the challenge to invent, the  entrants rigorously pursued hugely intelligent and very challenging other models of what they believe the immediate and near future might hold. Interestingly, although each of the shortlisted entrants were particular, they all shared a belief in the benefits of increased density in plan, in section and over time. They defined new ideas of the scale of suburban building and place. They also offered fascinating suggestions for new funding, renting and group ownership models; insights into construction and technique; visions of future shared living arrangements; and designs for the new typological models that are needed. The joint winners Carl Turner Architects & Metropolitan Workshop with Sir Richard MacCormac were distinguished by thoroughness of research coupled with imaginative speculation.

So the other half of the truth is that an extraordinary amount of collaborative research goes on in the construction industry. Where we can rightly be criticised (though I note not in the case of both competitions, which are well written up and published) is that we fail to capture and disseminate this vital work. We also tend to have an excessive amount of vainglory industry awards that often do too little to spread good practice.

Notwithstanding this, as the season to be merry is upon us, let’s celebrate and disseminate what we do outstandingly well. I remain hugely impressed by the fact that construction is inevitably - because of site and context - a piece of project-specific research. In the best cases a PhD in prototyping. Research in construction is alive and well. After all, it is fantastic that the Walkie Talkie’s car-melting concave glass facade generated free marketing and international notoriety whilst simultaneously demonstrating that much of the car industry’s research has been spent on misleading punters into spending fortunes on plastic trim designed to look like metal!

Simon Allford is a founding partner of AHMM