The times they are a changing

In Britain we do not do revolutions, at least not since the 1700s. Big changes do happen of course, but they take their shape slowly.  The end result of such changes is easier to understand in retrospect because at the time there was no announced grand plan.

I would suggest that we at one of these moments of big change. We have the longest domestic recession since the 1920s and financial crises continue to reverberate around the world. As we know, the property market has a front row seat for these economic pressures and property remains a troubled sector of the economy. The London core property market continues to defy gravity, rocket fuelled by the devaluation of sterling against other major currencies which has drawn in even more international investors. But a rocket designed, it seems, without a re-entry component. Elsewhere, it is patchy at best and grim at worst. For residents, ever-rising energy costs are a growing pressure on household budgets, which will only get worse for many when mortgage interest rates start to rise from their current lowest point in centuries.

Next we have a general breakdown of trust. This collapse includes energy companies as well as banks, politicians as well as journalists. This makes it very difficult to sell energy conservation to householders, for example. The sale is based on trusting the future performance of the supplier, that they will not ‘twist the knife’ with complex contracts, small print, unfair terms and conditions, rigged benchmarks, empty warranties or whatever is next. I suspect one of the reasons why Twitter is so successful these days is because it is the trusted voice of your neighbours, your mates, your clubs, and not your government and not your bank.

So, in terms of the triple bottom line, the economy is very weak and society is struggling – can the environment pick up the slack?

At the Centre for Construction Innovation (www.ccinw.com), from our small office and gallery at CUBE in Manchester, we see some hopeful straws in the wind. Few of the leaders in construction we speak with are basing their business plan refreshes on a simple return to ‘the good old days’. They know that model is truly bust. They are now interested in OSM (off site manufacturing) because it is more efficient, profitable, and generates far less waste, with construction and demolition waste being 36% of all UK waste tonnage. They are interested in BIM (building information modelling) again because it is more efficient to get high performing buildings designed right first time, instead of paying for design mistakes later. Young workers ‘get’ BIM straight away, and the best design teams currently are those with a mix of younger and much-older staff. And they are interested in WLC (whole life costs), including eventual ease of demolition and reuse (so called, cradle-to-cradle instead of cradle-to-grave) which is where true environmental impacts and performances of our buildings and their occupants can be fully understood and ethically controlled.

Importantly, these trends in OSM, BIM and WLC are of interest to infrastructure construction company leaders just as much as it is to those whose firms are focussed more on houses, flats, civic and commercial buildings. In my view, the implications of these trends for manufacturers of construction products has yet to be fully explored, and it would be a mistake to think that BIM, for example, just means supplying the data sheet as a spreadsheet. The best results will come from construction products manufacturers who see themselves as part of the BIM design team. Another early BIM lesson learnt is that measuring the build quality is key to understanding why some buildings perform worse, or even better, than on paper. Air tightness is the obvious example here, but the build quality also influences people and their behaviours as well as the performance of the fabric and the fittings. We may also see more growth in the trend within OSM for the clustering of component manufacturers very near to those companies making the larger panels and structures, because it is more effective in terms of innovation.

Turning to the planning system and building regulations, firstly I think it is fair to say that the construction industry does not see planners as the barrier to renewed and sustainable growth. The call to get planners ‘off our backs’ was not one that came from the industry leaders we know, though I imagine that if you have land banked a lot of the green belt then of course you’ll be moaning about planning to the government seven days a week. And yes, big schemes have complex planning conditions, but you cannot fairly blame the local planning officer when there are issues around CIL (Community Infrastructure Levy) contributions towards CrossRail in London.  That decision was made much higher up the political food chain.

Up to a few years ago, I would have argued that building regulations are the unsung heroes of environmental performance, the one part of our sector where delivery ‘at scale’ was undeniable. However, as time goes on I am getting more concerned. In terms of space standards and their abandonment, along with small windows and single aspects, I feel we are storing up some very real mental health issues for future generations. We are also building properties which are highly insulated but with little thermal mass, causing unwanted and even dangerous overheating in the summer months as well as the desired warmth during the winter. We are now seeing some public discussions on ‘sweat boxes’ which is not good for encouraging innovation. It is worth humbly reminding ourselves of the highly insulated ‘thick’ homes built in Salford many decades ago to Parker Morris standards. Interestingly, the owners reported having to install unnecessary central heating some years later because they could not each sell their homes and move otherwise.

So, if in Britain we do not do revolution and grand plans, where do we go from here?

I would suggest that the key trend now will be for off site manufacturing, certainly panels as now and possibly soon becoming predominantly 3D units such as rooms and pods. We hear informally of car manufacturers who can construct a family car for less than £1500 cost price. We know that some cars are far more complex than many buildings. And we’ve seen how the reliability and performance of cars has increased decade on decade. The old Ford Cortina at a show looks sweet, but would you really still want to try to start it on a cold winter’s morning. Someday soon a well known firm will offer a catalogue of OSM homes along with local contractors to arrange the foundations, permissions, services and land purchase. The old stigma of prefab homes has long gone, and land value discounts for key workers is a credible policy option for urban regeneration.

Perhaps the government was near the mark on one thing then – the future might not be self-build, but it might be self-manage.

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