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Sam Stacey: Improving the image of construction

16.05.2019

Improving the image of construction

Sam Stacey, Challenge Director - Transforming Construction at UKRI (UK Research and Innovation) was a keynote speaker at the CIM Construction group's (CIMCIG) House of Lords 'Image of Construction' event on May 16 2019. Here he discusses some of the key issues from the event:

Construction is the last great unreformed industry. It is massively important for all our lives. It employs nearly 10% of the global population. Yet in the UK it is seen as an unappealing career option. Training has been neglected, and especially if Brexit takes place, we will not have the people to carry out the building work that the nation needs. This is against a backdrop of negligible profit margins by main contractors and many of their suppliers. Numerous studies have shown that more than half the activities that take place on a typical construction project add no value to the end customer – they are process waste. All that is assuming that the way we construct does not change. What we do know however is that there is now an exciting opportunity to change.

From the point of view of wider society buildings often do not meet our needs. They use more energy than they are designed to do, and indeed are designed to use more energy than the planet can sustain. As is well known, the greenhouse gas emissions from the built environment represent about a third of the total. In terms of user experience, a long list of construction problems include traffic congestion from inadequate infrastructure, and the cost of treating illnesses caused by poor living conditions.

To all this there are emerging solutions. In terms of industrial progress, the focus everywhere is now on what is termed the fourth stage of the industrial revolution – the virtual factory. The previous two iterations – mass production and automation – were not ideally suited to an industry that makes big, heavy, bespoke objects. Industry four however meets our needs much better. Industry four includes uses of the internet of things; digital modelling; technical assistance of humans by robots; and autonomous vehicles.

So what we have today is a massive industry, with many problems, plus lots of opportunities to tackle those problems. For young people today, and indeed for people of all ages, this must be an inspiring prospect. An opportunity to improve billions of lives, and to address the health of the planet. The extinction rebellion protests revealed a passionate response to the climate crisis that we are facing. The crisis has certainly struck a chord with my own teenage children. This should make careers in construction an easier sell that ever before: a meaningful vision, solutions that include engineering and social science, and the opportunity to create value and make money.

From this strong base the Government and industry are working together as never before to propel construction into a new era. As part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, the Government is investing £170m in Transforming Construction. This will be matched by at least £250m from industry.

The programme includes the widespread deployment of buildings that function as power stations: generating, storing and distributing more energy than they consume. This has been proven as economically feasible for schools, offices and homes. These buildings will not only eliminate impact on global warming for themselves, but reduce transport emissions by powering electric vehicles. This is meaningful climate action that people can participate in and earn a living from.

I have no doubt that construction will leave behind the problems of the past and become an exciting industry that people aspire to be part of. It will offer opportunities for the development of new skills, for tangible contributions to the health of people and planet, and no shortage of financial rewards.

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