The construction industry is under pressure to improve cost efficiency and sustainability and is innovating at a pace not seen since the industrial revolution, but there are opportunities to do more. This was the key message of a recent meeting held on the themeof Innovation in Construction.

The half-day event, organised by the Academy, along with the  Institution of Civil Engineers  (ICE), and the  University of Cambridge’s Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction  brought together thought leaders on innovative construction techniques and emerging technologies across industry, government and academia. It was chaired by Sir John Parker FREng, President of the Academy, and Peter Hansford, Immediate Past President of ICE.

The government’s role in encouraging innovative construction was outlined by Paul Morrell, Chief Construction Adviser to the UK Government. He set out the view that competition in the construction industry does not work the way it should, leading to the cost of construction rising by twice as much as the rate of inflation in recent times.

He pointed out that the government can help with investment, regulation and procurement and whas set a long-term trajectory, laying out future sustainability plans so that companies can plan their areas of investment. Government believes that it should not tell the construction industry what to do but leave it free to innovate, he added.

The next speaker, Bill Hewlett, Technical Director, Costain, focused on the advantages of sharing innovative ideas and research, as well as risk. Innovative building requires closer relationships between the industry and academia, he told the meeting. Academia tends to be very good at thinking about first principles, but the ability to implement change lies in the industry so they have to work together.

A shared risk approach and progressive design are required to innovate on complex projects where it is not possible to determine a fixed cost or end date, he said. We need to make sure that the government procures with this in mind as private firms rarely choose to share construction risk with the builder, which can inhibit innovation.

Dr Scott Steedman CBE FREng, Director Designate of Standards, British Standards Institution, said tough sustainability targets and aspirational standards could promote innovation and reduce building costs, so engineers must look for opportunities to add value through more sustainable techniques and materials.

For Ray O’Rourke KBE HonFREng, Chairman and Chief Executive, Laing O’Rourke, many innovative opportunities lie in the future of engineering and construction. For example, in house building he has a vision of 90 per cent of construction being completed off-site to boost efficiency so that a house composed of modules could be made watertight within a day, and habitable within a month, a huge reduction in time and the associated costs of today’s traditional ‘block and build’ approach.

The ability for sensor technologies to monitor infrastructure across its liifetime was discussed by Professor Robert Mair CBE FREng FRS, Head of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Cambridge. These technologies enable engineers to understand how infrastructure is performing during and after construction, leading to more informed decision making and improved performance-based design and construction processes. He described the new Cambridge Innovation and Knowledge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Technology Strategy Board, and a number of industry partners and outlined its role in promoting the adoption of new technologies to improve the delivery and performance of infrastructure.

Wireless sensor networks could play a role in monitoring the deterioration of existing infrastructure, said Kenichi Soga, Professor of Civil Engineering, University of Cambridge. He explained how wireless motes with MEMS sensors inside can be easily installed in tunnels, for example, to send updates about the infrastructure’s performance. The university is also developing energy harvesting devices to power motes to create a ‘self-supporting monitoring system’ as well as exploring embedding fibre optics in construction materials to create a ‘nervous system’ in infrastructure.

Duncan McFarlane, Professor of Industrial Information Engineering, University of Cambridge, said the information generated from sensor technology would transform construction firms into service organisations that will be able to look after infrastructure projects throughout their lifespan. The challenge is how to make the massive amount of data generated by sensors easily accessible as well as how to assess its value and impact.

Finally, Dr Steve Denton, Director of Engineering, Parsons Brinckerhoff, examined the conditions that promote innovation on a construction project. He believes that innovation is not an adjunct but at the core of engineering and said that most innovative opportunities are found at the beginning of projects when you need a sophisticated understanding of the complex requirements of a client to find a new and better approach to building. Collaboration across disciplines with academics and other companies creates innovation ‘hotspots,’ but the environment must exist to incentivise motivation and exploitation of innovations.

Notes for editors

  1. Innovation in Construction was held at the ICE on 11 January 2012.
  2. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Katherine MacGregor at the Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0623; email: Katherine MacGregor