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Social infrastructure: Transforming Construction Challenge

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Imagine a future where our children are learning in schools that are optimised to maximise their health and ability to concentrate.

Where patients in our hospitals get to recover faster because their surroundings boost their mental health.

Where hospital layouts are optimised to make routine work efficient so doctors and nurses have more time with patients.

Where those buildings are net-zero carbon, have been built faster and are easier to upgrade.

A digital view of a GenZero designed building.
A digital rendering of a GenZero design.

This conception of social infrastructure is the vision of the Transforming Construction challenge (TCC), part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, with the aim of making that future nearer. How much nearer? Well, work is well underway with all government departments that construct buildings with taxpayers’ money to provide critical social services to society.

This social infrastructure is largely owned and run by government, and thus, optimising the running costs and performance of it (such as how it affects people using it) has a powerful business case.

To do this, the TCC is accelerating several system changes for the construction sector at the same time. 

Cutaway digital view of a GenZero designed building.
Design detail from GenZero.

Construction Innovation Hub Value Toolkit

First, government as a client needs to be able to define and procure buildings on their whole-life value, rather than for the cheapest build as is done now. 

To enable this the TCC funded Construction Innovation Hub has worked with 120 stakeholders to develop the Value Toolkit, a way of considering societal and environmental outcomes alongside economic ones. This has now been placed at the heart of the government’s Construction Playbook, a methodology all departments must follow to deliver on the ambition to procure for value.

Manufacturing approaches for construction

Second, the government has also committed (through the Transforming Infrastructure Performance strategy) to use more manufacturing approaches in constructing buildings. Applying greater process thinking to construction can lead to greater productivity and the use of manufactured frames and panels offers higher quality and reproducibility. 

To achieve this, suppliers and assemblers on buildings need to all be working to the same basic design rules about sizes of components and how they fit together. This is termed a platform approach and the challenge is working to ensure that the sector coalesces around the same rulesets. 

Manufactured wall panels for platform-constructed building inside a warehouse on a trailer.
Manufactured wall panels for platform-constructed building.

Social infrastructure projects

The Construction Innovation Hub is helping supply chains collaborate around platform approaches and funded projects such as SEISMIC are looking at platform solutions for schools, universities and hospitals. For more complex parts of such buildings, like operating theatres, research funded by the challenge has shown how platform thinking can still apply by using the principles of spaceflight manufacture. 

The bulk of government estate is simpler buildings that are easy to standardise and then create a strong pipeline of demand that help the manufacturing economics. When building accommodation for the Ministry of Defence or prisons for the Ministry of Justice, rules about room and cell sizes are already in place. 

Work by the Construction Innovation Hub has shown that around £35 billion of expected building projects in the next few years could be delivered using a platform approach with the procuring departments seeing projects being completed faster and lower cost with lower emissions.  

Building concepts looking at use of green space around buildings.
GenZero concepts looking at use of green space.

Net Zero buildings

Developing platform design rules that enable buildings to meet net-zero is another area of activity. With greater accuracy of build, platform approaches mean it is easier to achieve high energy efficiency in the building fabric. 

Working with the Department for Education, the challenge is seeking to embed platform design rules for net-zero into future procurement of schools. The GenZero project is developing these using the best current practice. The use of standardised layouts means the cost of manufacturing integrated renewable (active) energy components comes down and even leads to buildings generating more energy than they use. Support for developing commercial active components is led by the Active Building Centre

Renders of GenZero designs for net-zero school buildings, showing cutaway views of two buildings.
Renders of GenZero designs for net-zero school buildings

The future of social infrastructure development

So, how will we improve performance for users of buildings in the long term? The answer lies in connecting the digital technologies used to design, build and manage our buildings. 

As we gather more data on how the physical environment affects users we can start to apply science to observations such as ‘schoolchildren have higher attainment in more sustainable school buildings’. Data can be fed back into our design models and procurement rules and we can prioritise the outcomes we want rather than simply building the cheapest structure, a situation that doesn’t work for anyone.

This forward thinking from government should be applauded and is part of a huge system change being undertaken by everyone involved in construction in the UK, from clients through to contractors and supply chains. The result will be a built environment that enables every citizen to live a better, healthier life.

Learn more about the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund’s clean growth challenges here.

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