Author: Keith Waller, Programme Director, Construction Innovation Hub
At the end of March, the Construction Innovation Hub’s (the Hub) funding from UKRI as part of the Transforming Construction Challenge finishes. When I look back over the four and a half years of our programme, there is much to be proud of. So what has just over £80m of R&D funding delivered?
In November 2018, we kicked off our programme, with the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), Building Research Establishment (BRE) and Centre for Digitally Built Britain (CDBB) embarking on a wide range of research activities, aligned with the ambition of the Construction Sector Deal: how could we boost productivity, how could we embed digital ways of working, how could we enable more manufactured solutions to deliver our built environment?
At the start, we didn’t have a traditional scope of works. UKRI set us a different challenge. Rather than a list of activities we should undertake, we were given impacts to reach for. Focusing on outcomes, not inputs, helped make the programme the success it has been.
We quickly realised that simply doing “research” alone wouldn’t be enough. As well as developing the solutions – tools, processes, products – we needed to do more. It was important that we helped create the right environment for these solutions to thrive, working with clients, policymakers and regulators to ensure that any innovation would have a home.
Moreover, we knew that we needed to bring industry with us. Undertaking research in a vacuum might produce interesting outputs and valuable insight, but without capability, capacity and appetite in industry, any innovation would likely flounder.
Therefore, we structured our programme to work closely with both government and industry so we could target the maximum impact – developing solutions that met a need, creating the right enabling environment for them to thrive, and working with industry to help them on their own transformation journey.
Rather than a programme delivered by just the three Hub partners, we included government and industry as key contributors to our programme.
Through this collaborative approach, we were able to help shape the policy environment, contributing to the Construction Playbook and Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA’s) TIP Roadmap to 2030.
Industry played such an important role in all our key outputs. Hundreds of organisations worked with us on the development of the Value Toolkit. The networks established through CDBB helped make the UK BIM Framework and the digital tools, such as Government Soft Landings, successful. And key industry players – consultants, contractors, manufacturers, both large and small – have helped co-develop the Product Platform Rulebook. Without their insight and input, our impact would be lessened.
So, what of the impact? How do we measure our success?
Again, it is the focus on outcomes, not just outputs that has helped. Success is seeing the innovations adopted, and through their adoption, the ambitions of the Construction Sector Deal become more tangible.
One of the last activities we undertook in our original R&D programme, was the construction of the sandpit structures at MTC’s Ansty site. The sandpits are full-scale, physical testbeds, that help showcase what can be achieved through a manufactured approach. We wanted to prove that it could be done, that it was worth doing and leave a legacy resource to provide clients and industry with a safe space to test, optimise and de-risk new approaches to delivery.
Which brings us to the last six months of our programme. After the original phase of funding concluded in September 2022, UKRI provided bridge funding to help accelerate the Hub outputs from research and development into deployment and diffusion.
We have used this funding and this period not to develop new solutions, but to optimise what has already been created as we seek to embed new ways of working into the sector. And the sandpits have been invaluable. The power of being able to walk-around, to explore and to experience is so much more powerful than simply downloading a report from our website.
Clients from both the public and private sector have been able to see first hand what can be achieved. Our industry partners can showcase what they are able to do. And we have measured the potential.
Comparing traditional outputs and production rates with what has already been achieved on the sandpits is enlightening. Speed of delivery is much faster. Quality is higher. The demand for labour, for transport, for waste skips is vastly reduced. The sandpits help prove the theory and the bridge funding has been instrumental in ensuring the transformation can continue.
But even with all this progress, there is so much more that can be achieved. I said at the start, all good things come to an end. Maybe they do, but this is not the end of the Hub’s programme.
We will continue to support government to embed the Value Toolkit into how decisions are made – ensuring that our built environment supports better outcomes and improved whole life value.
We will continue to work with government and industry to accelerate adoption of manufacturing solutions into our future schools, hospitals, homes and public buildings. We are already talking with a number of government departments to help shape what they deliver and how it will be delivered.
As ever, there is more we can do as we move beyond our UKRI funding. And I remain optimistic for the future. The collaborative spirit, the ambition we have seen over the past four and a half years must continue. The groundwork has been laid – not just by the Hub, but by all the many contributors from across government and industry.
We all know there are many challenges the sector will face in the short to medium term; shortages of skills, uncertain investment pipelines, the pressing need to address carbon, productivity and more. And we also know that hoping these challenges can be overcome by following traditional approaches to design, to delivery, to operation will surely fail.
So as our funded programme finishes, new opportunities remain. We must build on the impact of the Transforming Construction Challenge has already delivered and go further, go faster. We must remain bold and keep our collective ambition.
I am so grateful to the whole Hub team and to those many, many organisations and individuals who have supported us throughout. Let’s keep it going.