26. 06. 2018

Innovation in Construction: From printing concrete to Mirvac still changing everything

I really love it when what were once seen as completely wacky ideas cross that elusive threshold of credibility, and you suddenly find that everyone’s talking about them!

And so it is with 3D Printing in the construction sector. For years, there have been little snippets about apparent ‘revolutionary developments’ in China, Japan, other European countries and a variety of universities, but for mainstream players here in the UK, these just didn’t quite cut it. But now there’s a breakthrough that’s making everybody sit up and pay attention: the ability to ‘print’ concrete. Given the critical role of concrete in construction, this was always going to be the big one, so the announcement of a new housing scheme in the Netherlands, using off-site construction and 3D Printing, has undoubtedly raised the stakes.

And construction is one sector where we need as much innovation as we can engineer – if we’re ever to get on top of construction’s massive physical footprint in terms of raw materials, greenhouse gas emissions, water and waste.

Here in the UK, the built environment sector is responsible for more than a third of our waste, whilst consuming vast quantities of virgin raw materials. On average, these materials are used only once – at least in their high value form – resulting in significant wastage of the materials themselves, as well as wasted energy – given that many of those materials are extremely energy-intensive in their production. Deloitte estimates that a 34% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved by re-use of building components, doubling the savings available from recycling.

So I’m delighted that Forum for the Future has now teamed up with the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products (ASBP), the London Waste and Recycling Board (LWARB) and Whole Life Limited (WLL) to initiate a brand new project on ‘Reusable Buildings’. With a timely grant from Climate-KIC, we’re going to scope out what the market potential is for reusable components and reusable buildings (ie buildings that are designed and constructed in such a way that they can subsequently be broken down into their constituent parts, rather than simply demolished), between now and 2030.

There’s quite a lot already under way in this space, and BAM and Arup produced an excellent report (supported by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation) back in March last year: ‘Circular Business Models for the Built Environment’.

But our project is going to focus on the demand side, quite simply because we believe that the barriers here are not really technical, but economic and cultural – as in this being one hell of a conservative sector that we’re dealing with!

Happily, innovation comes in all shapes and sizes in the construction sector, and one of the businesses that I’ve most admired over the years on that score is the rather wonderful Sydney-based Mirvac. Back in 2014, it brought out a highly ambitious sustainability strategy, under the suitably immodest title of ‘This Changes Everything’. And a lot has indeed changed over the last four years!

But I’m equally impressed by Mirvac’s brand new strategy refresh, launched on 14th June. It’s just so encouraging to see that there’s no diminution in ambition level here, with a readiness to go on innovating that is highly distinctive.

And not just in the obvious ways. There’s a whole raft of critical social innovation that reveals the true breadth of today’s sustainability agenda for the built environment sector. For instance:

‘The challenges associated with urban living aren’t just environmental either. As people continue to flock to our capital cities, increased social isolation is having worrying health consequences. In studies of over 3.7 million adults, loneliness was found to increase the risk of premature death by 50%, and over a third of adults aged 45+ categorised themselves as lonely.

It’s vital that as we grow, we don’t grow apart from each other. That’s why we are committing to treble our community investment by 2022, and investing in a longitudinal wellbeing study, aiming to build supportive, connected and socially cohesive communities.’

This is the kind of stuff that we really pay attention to in Willmott Dixon, where I have the privilege of being a non-executive Director. And I’ll be saying a bit about what we ourselves are up to in this innovation space in a week or so’s time.
 

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