Innovation is good for you – or so we have been repeatedly told since the government’s M4I initiative at the height of the construction boom.
Innovation became a badge, in the same way as sustainability, for construction companies to show that they were leading players.
During the boom, the industry did indeed produce many new products and systems, particularly in housing, prefabrication and sustainability, when stimulated by challenges such as English Partnerships’ Design for Manufacture competition.
Now we’re in a recession, the pessimistic view is that safe pragmatism will prevail, R&D budgets will be cut and the industry will rely on the tried and tested, cost-effective solutions. There’s certainly cause for concern. Historically, compared to the US, we have a much weaker relationship between technical innovation and investment, and a much smaller manufacturing sector compared to Germany.
But the winners of this year’s CIOB Innovation and Research Awards – which include a concealed flood defence barrier, a platform for safe working at height designed in Hong Kong and a Welsh timber housing system – shows that there are still plenty of good ideas around. The ideas market is one of the UK’s strong points, and I believe it is vibrant enough to offer continuity at the other end of the recession.
The recession should also provide new breathing space for ideas to flourish. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some of the more technically inventive architects and engineers are using the recession to look afresh at the way they do things. Certainly, the appetite for new ideas is still in place – attendance at the lectures and symposia held at the Building Centre, for instance on freeform construction, has never been higher.
The Building Centre is home to Product Innovation in Architecture (PIA) – a group of companies from the design, manufacturing and R&D sectors of the industry which are active in the design of new products for construction. One member, German company Rehau, produces moulded and extruded products for ground source heat pumps, underfloor heating and other renewable energy solutions and can produce remarkable statistics about the percentage of its turnover derived from products developed in the past five years. The innovation culture runs throughout the company, from the production line to the boardroom.
One UK member is Vector Special Projects, a specialist in building skin technology. Vector regularly airs new ideas at PIA events, most recently on air-filled structures, vacuum insulation and composite materials.
The ideas market is vibrant enough to offer continuity at the other end of recession
The PIA has recently been augmented by a group of new members from the Composites Trade Association, which is intent on bringing new materials already in use in the automotive and transport sectors into construction.
These companies benefit from the design talent of the highly innovative UK design professions. Much of their work tends to be on a project-by-project basis and is highly dependent on an innovative manufacturing and building sector to capture the value of this work. As the rapid cooling of the industry takes its toll on project workload, we have to hope that it will allow time for a considered evaluation of the way we build and for new ideas to come through for when the recovery comes.
The principal area in which we need innovation to flourish is sustainability. Reports that venture capital has noticeably dried up in the past two months are of concern. However, there is still consultancy support for small companies with developing low-carbon technologies, such as EIC Environmental Investment Network.
The less glamorous refurbishment market is also starting to stimulate new technical solutions to universal problems such as internal wall insulation.
Recession is clearly a difficult time for the industry. But much of our ability to emerge from it depends on innovation. Investment capital and supply chains are critical, but 30% of the issue is related to mindset – and we need one that can take positives from negativity.
Andrew Scoones is director of the Building Centre which hosts and organises PIA