Delivering net-zero in the construction sector

5 minute read

14 July 2021

By Peter Springett

Head of Content, Upstart

When the architect Le Corbusier asserted that the home should be a machine for living in 1927, he was already thinking about the influence of industrial engineering and technology on domestic architecture.

But for the past 100 years, construction has lagged in the application of technology to design, engineering, and assembly. Construction also spends less on R+D than most other manufacturing sectors, while projects are also subject to over-runs and budget inflation. 

But today, triggered by a global drive towards carbon net-zero, construction is experiencing more innovation and disruption than at any time in recent history.  Public policy is an important driver with governments worldwide publishing legislation and incentives that are transforming building materials and methodologies.

The UK is no exception.  Read the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) Net Zero report and the words building and construction leap out on almost every page. That’s not surprising. Construction contributes approximately 40% of the UK’s emissions according to the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC).

There are other good reasons why construction is under the spotlight. The UKGBC points out that 80% of UK buildings in use in 2050 have already been built and these could represent 95% of future built environment emissions. Reducing emissions to net-zero will require retrofit work on up to 27 million domestic and 2 million non-domestic buildings.

In the meantime, it is estimated that the UK needs roughly 300,000 new homes per year to keep up with demand. All these properties will be subject to stringent new energy efficiency guidelines and should be ‘zero-carbon ready’ by 2025. This means that they should produce 75-80% fewer emissions compared to existing buildings.

Modern methods, new opportunities

BIM as text in the notebook 3D illustration

Retro-fitting and a surge in new builds will further disrupt construction and generate a corresponding opportunity for incumbent players and new-market entrants. In the case of the latter, there’s enormous scope to adapt their experience of digital transformation in other sectors to what’s known as Modern Methods of Construction (MMC).

This encapsulates a variety of on-site and off-site innovations that accelerate the delivery of sustainable, long-life buildings. In the domestic sector, it is often described as the industrialisation of construction where most of the building assembly takes place in a factory including walls, roofs, floors, and even entire rooms.

Here it becomes possible to adapt many of the principles of robotics and automated assembly lines well established in other manufacturing sectors. Proponents of off-site construction highlight the possibilities of continuous improvement and greater reliability achieved through high-precision manufacturing processes.

While the application of robotics takes place mostly off-site, the technology is starting to enter the building site, assisting with processes that include plasterboard and slab installation. The drivers for this include speed (a robot can work 24 hours a day) and a general skills shortage in the construction sector. Indeed, more than 80% of the world’s construction companies say they are planning to introduce robots into their operations this decade.

“Modern life demands, and is waiting for, a new kind of plan, both for the house and the city.”

— Corbusier

High rise and highly sustainable

Driven by net-zero goals, the technology of construction materials is also shifting, especially the use of natural materials.  This includes the growing use of timber over bricks, concrete, and steel wherever possible.

The CCC Net Zero report states, “For wood in construction, there is the potential to increase volumes of sustainable sawn log so that annual carbon sequestration in new UK buildings rises for housing and non-residential buildings.” Currently, less than 30% of houses and flats in the UK are built with a timber frame, while the report anticipates that this will rise to higher than 40% in the coming years.

As a result, we’re seeing innovation in the use of wood as a construction material. This includes hybrid-timber and concrete structural systems, and dowel-laminated timber that is popular for its ease of use with computer-controlled machinery.

Policy makers are catching up, with France introducing a sustainability law that will ensure that all new public buildings are built from 50% timber or other natural materials. Norway is home to the world’s tallest timber building, 18 stories high while in the U.S., the building code is being changed to allow for buildings of a similar size.

Blurring the building life cycle boundaries

Image Source; Shutterstock Building Information Modelling
Image Source; Shutterstock
Building Information Modelling

Combining off-site construction with tools such as BIM (Building Information Modelling), 3D printing, and virtual reality blurs the boundaries between design and construction. This in turn leads to new business models in construction where the entire project life cycle - design, engineering, materials, and construction - becomes a single process. A good example is Katerra’s end-to-end new build service which aims to reduce costs while accelerating the construction of homes and other buildings.  

But for all the talk of technology, innovation is nothing without people. To ensure the UK government’s commitment to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is on track, the construction industry will require the equivalent of 350,000 new roles to be created by 2028. This includes 86,000 construction project managers, 33,000 building envelope specialists, and 59,000 plumbers and HVAC specialists.

On top of this, construction will find itself competing for technologists, especially in the field of artificial intelligence which has enormous potential in design, predictive maintenance, project management, and robotics. Organisations that already hold large volumes of data related to project management or maintenance will need data scientists and software engineers to extract the latent value in this information through machine learning and software development.

Indeed it’s the changing shape of the workforce that best reflects the changes in the construction industry. Once sustained by steel and cement, construction is increasingly reliant on silicon and software - and the skills required to use these tools. Returning to Le Corbusier, “Modern life demands, and is waiting for, a new kind of plan, both for the house and the city.” Thanks to net-zero, new regulations and the unstoppable momentum of digital disruption, that wait will soon be over.

Not sure what to do next? Then Start Here and get in touch with the team at Upstart today. We’re here to help you deal with digital disruption.


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