How the next 20 years pan out for construction depends on what the industry does today – a government consultation paper, Building Our Future, gives us the chance to consider the opportunities and the risks.
We live in the most prosperous and technologically advanced age the world has ever known, with virtually free communications, powerful computing, cheap energy, medical advances and exciting new materials to build with. And yet much of construction is clinging to outdated practices.

The government aims to bring it up to date through its Foresight programme, under which 50 people from different construction backgrounds have produced a report called Building Our Future. This is a consultation document outlining the issues facing construction over the next 20 years and presenting possible solutions. In the past few years, Foresight has had a major impact on government policy thinking and research funding, so by responding to the document over the next month, the rest of the industry really can help shape the future of construction.

The issues are far-reaching. They embrace the skills and culture of the workforce; use of “intelligent” building materials; construction site automation; foreign “takeover” of the industry; technology-driven collaborative networks; “tax credits” for recycling, “trading” of building materials and waste; and no-fault compensation schemes with drastic cuts in site accidents.

Whole-life thinking

One of the key issues is sustainability. A sustainable future will be achievable only through improvements in waste and energy management, land and materials recycling, new and alternative materials and good construction practices. However, real sustainability requires a total change in energy use, planning and land use, construction materials and practices, and in the way that communities and society are organised.

The whole industry, together with policy planners, investors, building owners and operators, needs to be encouraged to use whole-life costing. Lower building management and insurance costs would help make it attractive.

With higher targets for brownfield development, there is also a need to minimise demolition waste and to ensure that remediation costs are accounted for in planning and costing. An environmental “value” formula for recycling, reusing and trading building materials and waste could help to justify redevelopment decisions. For efficient building maintenance (public and private), we need formal regular procedures aided by electronic maintenance “logbooks”. Furthermore, there will need to be a change in the way the private sector, including householders, value property ownership. This requires a shift in their attitude to whole-life costing and a method of valuing its benefits.

Better assessment and sustainability indices for materials and components are key. Valuing sustainability would provide a focus for developing new construction products and materials. Construction industry research and technology applications, such as intelligent cladding, also need to incorporate long-term social and environmental thinking.

New technology, materials and processes

New technologies are reshaping the way we live, think and work, and construction has a vital role to play in this evolution. Developments in material science will change the strength-to-weight ratios of construction products. New biological materials will have self-repairing properties. Artificial intelligence and nanotechnology will enable us to embed “smart” sensors into buildings and remotely monitor building performance. However, the benefits depend on what the industry invests in research, on its ability to design with and apply such new products, and on better methods of construction.

One of the industry’s weaknesses is its failure to achieve consistently high levels of product quality. Many construction problems are caused by poor design, through designers having insufficient information about the performance of products in use. Construction design could benefit from “evidence-based” design information feedback and improvement. Remote sensing will make it easier to collect information to help customers quantify the true costs of total ownership and drive improvements in design and construction processes.

Introducing better management processes to support the construction life-cycle is one of the major challenges facing the industry. Effective collaborative working requires information integration and involves all the business processes – from marketing and finance to design, site supervision and facilities operation. Efficient management of construction activities means using information and communications technologies, or ICT, to share information and manage it in a way that benefits everyone in the team.

Developments in construction site robotics and off-site prefabrication will mean fewer people on site and a reduction in accidents

Virtual reality will enable visualisation of site construction processes, and ICT could help to automate the design, factory production and site-assembly process of construction products. This would result in a reduction in the number of site workers because robots would assemble modular buildings on site. It would mean new management and trade skills and a shift in construction industry attitudes. We also require significant investment in UK manufacturing if we are to avoid importing all our building products and expertise from abroad.

UK industry prospects

Our leading designers, engineers and project managers are world-class, but commercially less strong than many international competitors.

Customers are demanding increasingly challenging design standards and technical sophistication and so UK products are becoming less competitive. Comparison with other countries suggests that UK designers frequently over-engineer projects and offer bespoke solutions where standard ones would suffice, which makes them less competitive. Professional services firms will need to develop partnership networks with construction companies and clients worldwide.

Procurement systems such as the private finance initiative and framework agreements introduce new design criteria, and their financing and operational aspects bring new players into the team, making partnerships a necessity. As construction technology develops, so more skilled employees will be needed and contractors may directly employ and retain many more project team participants.

Such closely integrated co-operative working, in real or virtual partnerships, requires sophisticated electronic communications, which means that management processes as well as design and engineering methods need to be standardised so they can be managed over the Internet. Technology-based systems make it easier to work in virtual teams and make location and distance almost irrelevant. Increasingly, the market will polarise between firms fully plugged in to the ICT revolution and those dragging their feet.

UK site practice also has to significantly improve. New attitudes, better design and construction practices and increasing use of ICT are vital to support and manage advances in design, building components and materials. Lifelong learning, knowledge management and more powerful design tools will be vital to the future success of UK construction. Failure to adopt them will mean greater use of overseas skills operating through “virtual” environments.

It will also result in a gradual and total takeover of the UK industry by foreign-owned companies.

Improving health and safety

Within 20 years, we want zero deaths on UK sites and an 80% reduction in serious injuries. Using ICT on site will benefit safety. However, as many as 60% of fatal site accidents can be attributed to choices made before site work begins. Key factors include a lack of design-led safety considerations, poor project communication and collaboration, bad site management, outmoded construction processes and lack of feedback.

Integrating an accident prevention philosophy into a scheme at the outset would reduce accidents and health problems caused by inappropriate materials or processes. Alliances and partnering approaches that develop trust, as well as a “no blame/no fault” compensation system and better near-miss reporting, would enable freer information exchange and so identify generic health and safety problems. Better health screening and education could alert employers and employees to potential future health problems. Developments in construction site robotics and off-site prefabrication will mean fewer people on site and a reduction in accidents.