Delivering change in the construction sector

November 5, 2019

Dr Simon Robson, head of architecture and built environment at Northumbria University, talks to North East Times about what the university is doing to address the changing needs of the construction industry

For many years, the construction sector has been plagued by a lack of connectedness, not only on the part of clients and suppliers, but also through the Government. Productivity rates are poor, corners were being cut to save costs and its sustainability record could also be massively improved. Well over 50 per cent of waste generated in the UK comes from the construction sector, and globally, buildings and construction make-up almost 40 per cent of energy-related CO2 emissions. While many could see the problems the sector faced, the Grenfell Tower tragedy highlighted the fatal impact the industry’s lack of accountability, gatekeeping and traceability could have on building safety, individuals, families and communities.

The independent Hackitt review that followed recommended the need for better information sharing and mandatory digital records, as well as better procurement based on building outcomes, not capital cost.

The collapse of industry giant Carillion the following year further demonstrated inefficiencies in the supply chain and proved no company is too big to fail. These factors, combined with the push by governments worldwide towards a circular economy, means that the construction industry is at the precipice of transformative change.

The MGI Index has revealed that construction is still one of the least digitised global industries. There are predictions that greater adoption of digital technologies could save up to $1.7 trillion across design, engineering, construction and operations of global non-residential developments alone by 2025.

Effective transformation needs support from those people and organisations at the forefront of new thinking. We need to do all we can to support it to embrace the opportunities this will bring, and here in the North East we are in a prime position to do this.

We are already exhibiting the qualities required to create transformative change, with positive effects. We have led the way in BIM, digital technologies and smart cities, creating a hotbed for innovation through a cluster of expertise and innovation, all of which have the potential to solve some of these issues.

To ensure we can drive most value for the sector, and impact on the economy, digital technologies need to support collaboration and data sharing across the lifecycle of infrastructure.

This requires a fundamental cultural shift supported by new legislation, education for clients, trust between disciplines and new knowledge and skills. Much of this work is already underway in our universities. We are at the forefront of research and development. We are creating new products, services and education processes that will give industry the skills and technologies it needs to deliver change.

Earlier this year, Northumbria and Newcastle universities were awarded £8 million to create the world’s first Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment and last month Northumbria formally launched a partnership with George Clarke’s MOBIE to drive innovation in designing homes for the future by embedding research and innovation into businesses through co-funded PhDs. Last, but by no means least, we are working with businesses across the region to launch the International Centre for Connected Construction (IC3), which will build on the North East’s unique ecosystem that has enabled the organic growth of a cluster of expertise and innovation.

IC3 will provide a platform for local businesses to collaborate internationally and be at the cutting-edge of developing and applying new technologies.

Our unique ecosystem has seen the region build an international reputation for innovation in the built environment and we are already driving key projects that will create change in the industry.

Northumbria University

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