Is it true the construction industry is slow to modernise?

The government’s housing white paper is critical of the construction industry - just as a major piece of research looking into materials choice in the construction industry supply chain gets underway.

New Microsoft building at 21 Station Road, Cambridge.
New Microsoft building at 21 Station Road, Cambridge.
  • Updated: 15 May, 2017
  • Author: John McCormack, Research Fellow, University of Hertfordshire’s Centre for Sustainable Communities

Dr John McCormick, Centre for Sustainable Communities, University of Hertfordshire, discusses the Farmer Review of the construction labour market, and invites ICE members to participate in research on materials choices in the construction industry supply chain.

Government's recently launched housing white paper, Fixing our broken housing market1 has brought the issues of innovation, modernisation and productivity to the forefront of construction industry policy and practice.

Against the background of a severe housing shortage, falling numbers of new-build housing units and a skills shortage in the house-building sector, it accuses the industry of being 'slow to modernise and make use of more efficient and faster ways of building'.

The solution it suggests is for more homes to be constructed offsite. Such homes, it claims, are 'high quality, reliable, more productive and can be highly energy efficient'.

Doing things differently

The tone of the white paper - that the house-building industry is reluctant to embrace change - echoes that of the Farmer Review of the UK construction labour model Modernise or die2. It also reflects Farmer's assertion of the need for more offsite construction of innovative building products:

"What do we need to do to get the industry to do things differently – to change its practices towards those that result in greater productivity, more innovative construction practices, products and materials, and the sustainability of both the industry and the built environment that results from its endeavours?"

Searching for the right solution

In partnership with building materials and construction firm Tarmac, the University of Hertfordshire's Centre for Sustainable Communities is currently undertaking research into this question3.

Focusing on materials choices in the construction industry supply chain, the research is looking at the day-to-day, 'real-life' context in which decisions are made. Among other things, this involves in-depth interviews with a sample of key industry stakeholders (including civil engineers, Tier 1 contractors, architects, clients, materials specifiers and end-users).

It also involves a large-scale, quantitative survey of such stakeholders and a focus group to consider the research findings. Readers of this blog are encouraged to participate in the project's interviews, survey and focus group.

Influencing material choices in the supply chain

Underpinning the framing of the research are a number of assumptions about what is likely to influence materials choices in the construction industry supply chain.

Chiming with many of Farmer's core recommendation principles, these include: finance, custom and practice, knowledge/training, regulatory compliance, communication, and client specification. (This is not an exhaustive list, and you are welcome to suggest other factors that have a bearing on materials choices.)

Aim of the UH-Tarmac Sustainable Living research project

The aim of the UH-Tarmac sustainable living research project, Supporting innovation and best practice in the materials supply chain: Communicating and learning with suppliers and end-users, is to shed light on the barriers to the greater use of innovative, sustainable building materials, by exploring in-depth both the nature of the barriers themselves and the relative significance of each of them in influencing purchasing decisions.

The 3-year, £150,000 research project aims to explore and understand purchasing decision-making processes and contexts in the construction industry supply chain, and the impact of these on the demand for sustainable building products.

How can I get involved?

The anticipated project outputs include a detailed report on purchasing decision-making in the construction industry supply chain, and briefing notes for industry stakeholders in respect of how to overcome the multiple prima facie barriers to innovation and modernisation that the research will address.

For more information on how to get involved, contact Dr John McCormack, Centre for Sustainable Communities, University of Hertfordshire. 07811 352114/ j.mccormack@herts.ac.uk

1Department of Communities and Local Government. (2017) Fixing our broken housing market. London: HMSO
2Farmer, M. (2016) Modernise or die: Time to decide the industry's future. London: Cast Consultancy
3Supporting innovation and best practice in the materials supply chain: Communicating and learning with suppliers and end-users.

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