Now that major funding has come on stream for construction research, we must not waste the opportunity, writes Andrew McNaughton
OVER the past decade the competitiveness of the UK construction industry has come under increased scrutiny. Procurement, supply chain management, skills shortages and innovation have all come into sharp focus as the industry faces challenges from international competition.
To succeed in today's market, the UK construction industry must become forward-thinking, modern and competitive and actively encourage the development of technologies and processes.
For the first time, the industry has a significant opportunity to embrace the type of strategic research that will enable it to plan a decade ahead , rather than merely respond to short-term developments. Research is a central plank of the industry's modernisation.
In the past, a major barrier to research and innovation has been the industry's inability to attract substantial levels of funding.
Or, more specifically, the absence of a co-ordinated body to lobby for funding.
With a potential £36 million available annually to the UK const ruct ion indust ry f rom EU and UK sources, this is now being addressed.
The National Platform for the Built Environment, managed by Constructing Excellence, has been developed to help attract research funds and to drive the agenda forward.
The National Platform's High Level Group recently met for the first time. The focus of the session was to draw up a UK St rategic Research Agenda in response to the European Strategic Research Agenda issued towards the end of last year.
The group consists of a number of leading industry figures, including Keith Clarke, chief executive of Atk ins, Tim Peach, managing director of Taylor Woodrow Construction, and Terry Hill, chairman of Arup.
To date, the group has outlined three high-priority research areas: reduced resource consumption;
developing client-driven construction processes and ICT and automation in construction.
Currently, the group is carrying out an industrywide consultation to establish more clarity and detail around each of these areas.
Firstly, the group will lobby for funding to explore sustainability issues, focusing on the reduced use of energy, water, materials and land in construction.
The industry can then develop greater insight into the innovations required to deliver highly efficient buildings, eco-design and environmentally friendly construction materials.
Secondly, research funding will target how industry can bet ter meet clients' needs. It is imperat ive that the industry invests in understanding clients' needs and priorities based on the outputs they require, whether these relate to building hospitals to improve treatment and recovery times or to office buildings that will boost productivity.
Thirdly, we have prioritised research and development in the use of ICT and automation in construction. Integrating information and communications technologies can transform both on and off-site management and improve the efficiency of the supply chain.
In addition, advanced design, based on modelling and simulation, has the potential to drive industry efficiency and innovation.
Looking to the longer term, emerging trends such as nano and bio-technologies will have an increasing role to play in construction.
The Strategic Research Agenda is intended to act as a stimulus to help the UK construction industry develop and reinforce its own ideas about research.
It provides a framework that will enable the industry to step back and think about the issues that will dominate it in five, 10 and 25 years' time. In a global economy, success is about leadership, based on insights and understanding.
It is in the long-term interests of all organisations th roughout the const ruct ion sector to inf luence research directly so that they are equipped to lead transformation and innovation in the built environment.
Andrew McNaughton is managing director, Balfour Beatty Civil Engineering, and sits on the National Platform for the Built Environment High Level Group.
The UK Strategic Research Agenda for the UK was launched last month. For more information, please contact Deborah Hynes at Constructing Excellence on 020 7592 1100.