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A new two-year research project led by Bartlett Professor Jacqui Glass is creating a community to transform the construction industry’s broken model.
Credit: Samuel Zeller for Unsplash
The stage is set – major clients and government departments are committed to off-site construction ... the industry has got to get its house in order and make sure it can supply what’s needed.”
Professor Jacqui Glass
When the UK Industrial Strategy was announced in 2017, it identified major challenges affecting sectors from nuclear energy to big pharma. Nestled within that crowd, badged as in need of transformation, was the construction industry. Why?
“We have a problem of productivity in terms of how we create buildings,” says Professor Jacqui Glass at The Bartlett School of Construction and Project Management (CPM). “Fundamentally, the onsite model of construction is challenged: buildings are not performing as we hoped they would; we have a skills shortage – people don’t want to work in the industry.”
The industry needs to build better and more efficiently, Glass believes, and that requires a rapid shift toward more digital and off-site manufacturing approaches, driven by a re-conceptioning of the industry as a production system for built assets. It also needs to better align academia and professional bodies, so that there’s a destination for students coming off of cutting-edge courses. “We’re in danger of recruiting people into an old image of the industry,” she says.
This kind of transformation can’t be done by one discipline alone; it touches on everything from materials, design and manufacturing, to new business models. Which is why Glass says The Bartlett can attend to it – “because of its breadth.”
Credit: Jacek Dylag for Unsplash
Glass, along with colleagues at Imperial College London and WMG, University of Warwick, is leading a two-year project with a mandate to mobilise a new movement within the construction community. Launched in November 2018, Transforming Construction Network Plus (N+) has £1m to invest in new research that spans digital, energy, construction and manufacturing expertise, in line with the expectations of the Industrial Strategy Construction Sector Deal. Funding comes from the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), an investment supported by the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF).
N+ projects can look at any aspect of the problem, but there’s a condition – it must be interdisciplinary work. This focus on collaboration is critical for the N+ grant, says Glass: “It’s a perfect ‘Bartlett-type project’ because we need to bring in social scientists, management scholars, a range of people that can collaborate to solve this problem.”
First and foremost, the goal of the N+ is to provoke an industry that has been slow to change. Then to enable and amplify innovation. “Our role now is to bring academics into the debate and connect them with industry, provoke new ideas, create testbeds and demonstrators. There’s lots of us going at this problem.”
Glass and the team will do this through networking and skills-building events (its next event is a webinar on rethinking the business model for offsite construction in May). From the £1m pot, they will then fund up to 10 “high-impact, fast-influencing projects”. Alongside this, there is an in-house, cross-cutting research package, led by CPM’s Professor Andrew Davies and Imperial’s Professor Jennifer Whyte, that will explore business model and organisational transformation.
In 20 years of working in construction management research, Glass says she’s never had an opportunity like this to work so close to the government policy machine. By the end of the two years, her hope is that the project will have stimulated new research and new collaborations, paving the way for UKRI to continue to fund R&D projects that outlive the N+ grant.
The trajectory of the entire Transforming Construction Challenge is “astonishingly ambitious” she says. “We are saying: ‘the model is broken’. People have fallen down in the past because they haven’t wholeheartedly embraced a different model; they’ve tinkered. But the stage is set – major clients and government departments are committed to off-site construction, they’ll be demanding this, so the industry has got to get its house in order and make sure it can supply what’s needed.”
The School of Construction and Project Management is an international centre of excellence in the teaching and research of project management and economics. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more: https://ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/construction
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