Innovation needs to be used selectively in construction, which needs to become more efficient by taking on some principles of manufacturing

Nick Cullen

The UK nuclear industry was once the world leader in developing civil nuclear power generation technology. It was highly innovative – improving processes, efficiencies, performance and developing new technologies. It was so innovative that every UK nuclear power station is of a different design. This lack of repeatable designs and a number of strategic mistakes had the effect of ultimately destroying a once world beating industry. In hindsight, the key mistake was to give engineers free reign to develop newer and better solutions without the pressure to develop a sustainable business.

So how does the failure of the nuclear industry relate to innovation in construction?

Innovation is often perceived as unquestionably good – yet, in the case of the nuclear industry it can be viewed as playing a part in its failure. So is innovation always a good thing?

There great danger in seeing innovation as an essential element in every project

The answer is an equivocal yes. Innovation is needed to improve the construction sector – of that there is no doubt. The industry needs to improve its product and its productivity and must also maintain consistent levels of profitability, without which investment in innovation cannot happen.

There is, however, a great danger in seeing innovation as an essential element in every project. Innovation needs to be carefully considered, particularly as the industry shifts from an on-site construction model to one more dependent on manufacturing.

As a sector, manufacturing has become significantly more productive, improving by more than 50% since the mid-1990s. In comparison, construction productivity has flatlined. By adopting manufacturing techniques, the construction industry should be able to improve its overall productivity and long-term profitability.

Manufacturing relies, for the time being at least, on setting up production lines and processes that benefit from repeatable, standardised but configurable products. The manufacturing approach whereby a design is frozen and taken through to production before being revamped several years later is familiar to us all. The new version will reflect lessons learned both from the product performance and the process of manufacturing. If the benefits of off-site manufacturing are to be realised, the industry needs to think like manufacturers and innovate for specific benefits.

If the benefits of off-site manufacturing are to be realised, the industry needs to think like manufacturers and innovate for specific benefits

A manufacturing approach to construction does not mean we have to see a return to the prefabricated post-war model of construction. Solutions can – but do not have to – be volumetric for example. Products can be configurable, much as a cars are configurable with different options.

For the client side, the potential benefits include shorter construction times, improved quality and projects completed on time and to budget. To get the most out of this process, design innovation needs to focus on working closer with contractors to manufacture buildings – constantly innovating alone will not help.

Clients and designers need to focus on designing solutions that have repeatable assemblies to enable and empower off-site manufacturing. There is no need for a heating system to be innovative, nor an office service riser or floor to be configured differently on every project, or for that matter for the cloakrooms and toilets to be bespoke. Each can be configured, to suit – but the basic form can and should remain unaltered.

If construction is to benefit from off-site manufacturing, the industry needs to think like manufacturers – that means innovating where there are obvious benefits to doing so. New ideas need prototyping, testing and then monitoring of performance when in use. This is not new, nor is it complicated but it does require a degree of discipline from clients and their designers and a recognition that innovation isn’t always a good thing.

Nick Cullen is a partner at Hoare Lea