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Streamlined design set to tackle rising construction demand

Matt Thompson

Standardisation, DfMA, AI, IoT. Where do architects fit into technical innovations?

Architect AHR has been involved in DfMA schools projects for many years. At the just-completed Highcliffe primary school in Birstall, Leicester, a modular approach reduced the programme by 50% and fully complied with the DfE’s challenging performance specification.
Architect AHR has been involved in DfMA schools projects for many years. At the just-completed Highcliffe primary school in Birstall, Leicester, a modular approach reduced the programme by 50% and fully complied with the DfE’s challenging performance specification. Credit: AHR

A pot of taxpayers’ money destined to revolutionise the design, construction and management of built assets is being spent – apparently with very little engagement from architects. 

Called the Transforming Construction Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, it was conjured into existence along with the Construction Sector Deal after the government heeded evidence from many sources, notably the Construction Leadership Council’s 2016 Farmer Review that sports the not-so-subtle subtitle, ‘Modernise or Die’

Grossly simplified, the fund was justified as follows. Construction outputs underpin the nation’s social, economic, and environmental future wellbeing. But industry productivity is comparatively low and its long-term value suspect. Facing new threats such as climate change, skills shortages, and an ageing population on one hand, and huge infrastructure spending plans on the other, the industry does not have the capability or capacity to deliver. 

Fortunately, there is a glimmer of salvation. Applying new digital and advanced offsite manufacturing techniques such as machine learning and robotics to construction could prepare it to meet these threats. Think Lego crossed with Minecraft, sprinkle in a few buzz-acronyms including MMC, BIM Level 3, DfMA, AI, and IoT, and you get the picture. And since the government can force change with its brute buying power, the initial focus is on publicly funded projects such as transport, social housing, schools, and hospitals. 

At first glance, this looks to be all about builders and manufacturers, and so of marginal interest. On closer inspection, though, it could threaten architects’ whole raison d’etre. After all, if designs are standardised for fast, cheap, boxy factory production, wherefore architecture?

In fact, neither take is right. According to the man in charge of the Transforming Construction fund, challenge director Sam Stacey, far from making architects redundant, the direction of travel makes them all the more important: ‘It could get over-technical and nerdy unless the architects are involved. We need them to optimise value for the whole life of buildings and make this wonderful for the world instead of just efficient.’

That said, he recognises the profession’s tendency to, as he puts it, ‘stick its head in the sand. I studied architecture for three years. We weren’t encouraged to understand how buildings get built or, quite frankly, pay a great deal of attention to end-user feedback.’

Architect Jaimie Johnston, head of global systems at Bryden Wood, a multi-disciplinary practice overtly focused on R&D and already a beneficiary of Transforming Construction funding, thinks the feared ‘knicky-knacky boxes’ vision of the future is illusory. 

For him, architects’ creativity and design freedom is already heavily constrained by regulations and standards. ‘Hard-coding’ manufacturability, deliverability, cost-efficiency, and good co-ordination simply acknowledges that reality, freeing up architects to concentrate on adding value in a way that won’t get diluted later on. 

‘How many architects have burned through client fees working out how to lay out one-bed flats and all come up with pretty much the same answer? Automating repetitive processes allows rapid prototyping with better certainty – and better quality outcomes.’


School design for the Minecraft generation: Bryden Wood’s open-source Seismic web app, supported by the Transforming Construction fund, massively speeds up early school design phases and features T-Rexes and Loch Ness Monsters to appeal to all stakeholders.
School design for the Minecraft generation: Bryden Wood’s open-source Seismic web app, supported by the Transforming Construction fund, massively speeds up early school design phases and features T-Rexes and Loch Ness Monsters to appeal to all stakeholders. Credit: Bryden Wood (Seismic) Circle

Imran Kassim, regional director at AHR, another of the practices that secured funding in Round One, is clear that reports of architects’ death is greatly exaggerated: ‘Commissioning clients aren’t going to settle for blander or worse performing buildings. The architect is best placed to make sense of this new way of working together – understanding the essence of what society is looking for and what the cultural drivers are. Architects have always answered the thousand social, economic, environmental and functional problems at every step of the way, and I don’t see that changing.’

Stephen Good is director for the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre, involved in channelling applications from Scottish firms to the Transforming Construction funding. An architect with strong commercial bona fides with Anderson Bell + Christie, he moved to developing offsite factory production capability for main contractor CCG, which resulted in the prize-winning 2014 Commonwealth Games’ Athletes’ Village. 

He is also optimistic. ‘Along with their traditional place-making skillsets, architects are needed to standardise the invisible bits in DfMA (design for manufacture and assembly): ensuring elements plug together properly, are efficient, responsible in terms of materials and systems, and that potential for mass customisation is built in.’

So what, exactly, is the Transforming Construction fund? Much of its £170 million has already been deployed along a broad strategic front. A good chunk has gone to creating the Construction Innovation Hub, a triumvirate comprising the Building Research Establishment, Manufacturing Technology Centre, and Centre for Digital Built Britain. Another wad has underwritten the Active Building Centre, a programme to promote the large-scale deployment of energy-positive buildings. A lesser amount is incubating an information-sharing forum called Network Plus, led and managed by the Bartlett in collaboration with Imperial College London and the WMG (Warwick Manufacturing Group, part of the University of Warwick). 

All these facilities are up and running, gagging to collaborate with industry to meet the Construction 2025 Strategy ambitions.

The remaining not-insignificant cash is dedicated to R&D, allocated competitively to strict criteria. Round Two was announced earlier this year and is about to close (see panel). 

Round One, worth £13 million and released last year, launched a competition for corporate R&D projects to increase productivity, performance, and quality. It’s notable that, of the 25 successful consortia, hardly any included architectural practices. 

One of the very few was Bryden Wood. It was part of a consortium delivering the SEISMIC (Standardisation of School Components) project, which has created a harmonised digital modular build design library that can be used to configure any new school. Launched in June 2019, it can be used by stakeholders to massively speed up early design optioneering. As Johnston says, ‘Without accelerating the early stages, there will be no time left to design good versions of this stuff, and that will be the death of good design.’

Carrying out R&D is far from easy but still worthwhile, says Stacey. He has extensive experience from his former role as director of innovation, industrialisation and business improvement at Skanska. ‘If you’re clever, you can tie R&D into live projects by leveraging funding to go the extra mile that your fee does not cover.’ 

He also extols the virtues of R&D tax relief, which SMEs can claim if they make a technological advance and solve a technological uncertainty in the process. ‘An enormous proportion of what architects do potentially falls into those categories,’ he says.

Jaimie Johnston’s primary motivation is about solving critical global challenges. ‘It’s asking what it looks like to produce faster, better performing, functionally amazing, self-optimising, re-purposeable, recyclable, circular-economy buildings. That’s only possible with R&D. Even when it fails, the learning is always positive. And it saves us from cranking the same handle all the time, which helps to attract and retain talent.’

Stephen Good has practical watchpoints for those chasing this latest funding round. Paying close attention to the competition criteria goes without saying. Beyond that, you must collaborate with cross-disciplinary partners and clearly target desirable outcomes. ‘Most importantly, you must want to do it regardless – funding is just the icing on the cake.’

It’s just over a century since the Bauhaus and Deutscher Werkbund conceptualised architecture as industrial product design. This time, the vision looks to be on firmer technological foundations. Everyone agrees that architects are still central to the plot. With coders and data analysts using a new palette of techniques likely to feature in the new team mix though, they’d better get ready to evolve. What better way than through R&D? 

Transforming Construction Funding, Round 2

Interested parties – including architects – are actively encouraged to bid as part of multidisciplinary consortia for a share of money distributed by three separate schemes, two administered by UK Research and Innovation with the help of Innovate UK’s Knowledge Transfer Network, the last by Network Plus. These organisations are on hand to help with your applications and to help you to find partners.

A £600,000 fund is reserved for academic projects focusing on R&D that lies within Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) 3-8, or that draws on existing insights to test and validate solutions. 

Closing date: 14 November 2019


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