Construction's traditional attitude to R&D is that a brick is a brick is a brick – leaving the industry wide open to foreign competition. It's time to put our thinking caps on
GIVEN THAT darwin's first law of business is innovate or die, you might think it would be prudent for the construction industry to put a few per cent of its turnover into making its job better, cheaper and safer. The reality, however, has been pretty miserable. Historically, it has spent less than 1% of turnover on research and innovation. Fine, perhaps, in a period of boom, but not so clever when the going gets tough and foreign competition hots up.

The good news is that there is now a drive to do better. To help things along, my own department is chipping in £7.5m over the next three years under the Partners in Innovation competition. We expect that to be more than matched by the contribution from industry itself.

To give you an idea of where the money goes, consider two examples of ideas we have funded in the past year or so.

First, there is the recently completed project with Buro Happold at Westborough school, near Southend. This has shown the potential of cardboard. Its benefits in terms of producing green buildings are clear but this project helped to demonstrate that the mass production of cardboard buildings can also be cost effective. At the school, cardboard was used as pillars, structural panels to provide frame stiffening, insulation and cladding. Challenges remain in identifying the right uses for cardboard, but this project found how to make it fire resistant and waterproof.

We undertook the second project with Bovis Lend Lease at Mid City Place, a £46m office development in London. This was designed to demonstrate how the kind of "lean" manufacturing used in car making could be introduced into the complex construction process. The key was to change the way in which construction works were planned. A 4D model of the project, with time as the fourth dimension, was developed as a working tool. This was used to identify contingency options when project delays were experienced and to control the delivery and storage of materials so that just the right quantities were delivered at just the right time – vital for an industry that generates huge amounts of costly waste. Mid City Place was completed 11 weeks ahead of programme and on budget.

This year, the focus of Partners in Innovation will be different. As well as funding individual projects, there will be a new emphasis on bigger and more co-ordinated programmes. This is in response to Sir John Fairclough's report on construction innovation and research, which recommended that research should become more strategic.

We must ensure that the best ideas are incorporated into the daily working practices of the industry

We want to fund two or three programmes that really pull together all the research activity in a particular area, generate better collaboration between the key players and lead eventually to self-supporting centres and networks of excellence.

All of this is being done in close co-operation with the industry. We have to ensure that the best British ideas are incorporated into the daily working practices of the construction industry. The message is: "innovate and succeed"!

  • For further information about Partners in Innovation, go to

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