Innovation special: Hand built by drones...

31 May 2013

... fuelled by algae or printed on the moon - a new generation of building technologies is just around the corner. Denise Chevin explores what the boffins have in store for us, while Capita Symonds offers tips on funding your own bright ideas.

In just a few years buildings could be powered by photovoltaic paint, or even built by small robotic “quadrocopter” drones. Structural elements could be manufactured and installed by BIM-enabled robots, bespoke components and fittings could be manufactured using “cloud point” measurements captured by the camera on a mobile phone. The built environment is experiencing a period of intense and audacious innovation that will rethink the groundrules of construction.

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Creating the ‘living’ building

Cutting edge construction

Technological innovation is being driven by a combination of pressures: the need to reduce buildings’ environmental impact; increasing urbanisation – 70% of the world’s population will soon be city-based – posing food, transportation and accommodation challenges; population growth itself – nine billion worldwide by 2050. And a very considerable factor is economic pressure, as the  recession leads firms to differentiate themselves from the competition with smarter thinking.

The built environment is tapping into new science and is set to harness developments in materials developed using nanotechnology, such as “wonder material” graphene; “big data” exploiting public and commercial digital information; and “smart” interconnected technologies, the so-called “internet of things”, to change what we build and how we build it.

BIM is at the heart of many of the forthcoming innovations, while integrating the design and construction process that could see made-to-measure building components “printed” to order on site. And as banks of embedded sensors capture how buildings perform, this information could be fed back into AI-boosted modelling that automatically tweaks design to improve the building’s performance.

Drawing together a raft of developments already in the pipeline, consultant Arup has produced its vision of the “Skyscraper of the Future” 2050 style. The central conceit is that buildings will no longer be inert and passive as they are today, but living and responsive objects that perform many functions autonomously. They will generate their own energy; cultivate their own food; clean the atmosphere; self-adjust internal conditions to suit their inhabitants; and monitor their own state of repair and carry out maintenance without human involvement.

Author of the report, It’s Alive!, is Josef Hargrave, consultant at Arup Research + Foresight, a team based in London which draws on expertise from Arup’s global staff. He says: “By producing food and energy, and providing clean air and water, buildings evolve from being passive shells, into adaptive and responsive organisations – living and breathing structures supporting the cities of tomorrow.”

Hargrave says Arup compiled the report to bring the new technologies to a wider audience and make them more accessible, and that everything in the model is already in research.

Arup's Skycraper of the Future

1. Modular building components can be upgraded and rearranged over time; 2. Algae facade that produces biofuel; 3. Solar PV paint applied to facade elements; 4. Building systems fully intergated with smart grid and urban resource  streams; 5. Continuous robotic assembly and maintainance of building systems; 6. Urban Food production modules containing meat, fish and vegetable farms; 7. Building membrane converts carbon dioxide into oxygen; 8. Recycling centre automatically segregates and packages from waste feed.


Harvesting algae

One of the most advanced of these new technologies involves growing algae in building facades, which can be harvested and used for biofuel as well as shading. A great deal of effort is being put into the technology all around the world, particularly in the US and France. But Arup’s Berlin office has been involved in the development of a new facade system which grows algae in a sandwich of glass. A prototype building using this technology – the world’s first – was opened in Hamburg in March.

Hargrave says future research and development will be focused on connecting and linking components — essentially getting objects to “speak to each other” – which will require new bonds of cooperation between disparate industries. Developing the “Smart City” concept is one such example where engineers, architects, planners and transportation experts are working in consort with IT specialists.

Smart cities have been compared to an urban nervous system that exploits advanced sensor technologies. They feed information to a central brain, which then controls fundamental aspects of the city’s behaviour and energy usage to minimise carbon output. If, for example, a building is generating more heat than it requires, sensors detect the resource overflow and automatically divert it to other buildings via the urban grid.

Richard Saxon, the former chair of BDP who now heads up the Construction Industry Council’s innovation panel, also points to developments being much more interconnected. “In the key areas of innovation — combatting climate change and reducing the contribution of carbon dioxide emissions; making the manufacturing process more efficient, new materials and smart technologies – everything affects everything else,” he says. “We can’t afford sustainability unless we can get the costs out of the process,” he adds. “The whole thrust is to get carbon out and costs down and smart technology is one of the ways of doing that.”

Reducing costs of low carbon technology is certainly where the Technology Strategy Board is focusing its spend in the built environment. Ian Meikle, who heads up its Low Impact Buildings Programme, says: “A recent study we have concluded shows that technically we can cut carbon dioxide emissions in the existing stock by 80% and therefore meet the government’s reduction targets of 80% by 2050. But this costs more than consumers would be willing to pay. The challenge is getting the price of retrofit down. The industry needs to go back to the drawing board and go through a process of re-engineering and look at how it could operate to drive out costs and increase performance,” he says.

“One example may be for wall, insulation and ventilation suppliers to come together and develop integrated systems.”

Saxon says that the need to produce cheaper and more effective ways of making building more sustainable could be helped along too by the recession: “One of the things that happens during a depression is that it does make people want to break out from simple competition of firms offering the same things.”

Sam Stacey, head of innovation at Skanska, agrees: “The pressure is on to come up with better ways of doing things. The economic environment is pushing people towards innovating more and more.”

However, he says there is not so much a focus on research and development but innovation. “There is a tendency now to appoint people in innovation roles as opposed to head of R&D, which might have been the case a few years ago. Now the focus is much more on entrepreneurial, business ideas, services and processes. It’s much more customer focused.”

Skanska is seen as one of the world’s most innovative construction firms. In the UK, Stacey’s group has recently been awarded a £750,000 grant from the Technology Strategy Board to trial offsite construction methods in mobile workshops which can be moved from site to site, which have been dubbed “flying factories”.

Bottom of the pile

But while there is consensus that necessity is the mother of invention, the statistics for UK construction plc appear to tell a different story when it comes to investment in research and development.

Figures released by the Office of National Statistics in November show that when it comes to spending on R&D the sector still ranks lowest of all industries. For construction, 2011 spend on research and development was £22m. That was up from £14m in 2010, but below the £34m recorded in 2001. It represents just 0.1% of the total R&D spend across UK businesses, compared to construction making up 8-9% of GDP.

A more recent survey of 400 companies working in the sector appears to underscore the ONS figures. The survey, published by Constructionline and sister company Capita Symonds, asked a series of questions designed to gauge the construction industry’s appetite for innovation, diversification and research and development. The most innovative companies spent, on average, £66,250 on R&D activities a year – approximately four times more than the overall average of £15,623 or £514 per head.

As you might expect the average highest spend per head was found in manufacturing (£1,087), followed by architecture (£670) with contractors coming bottom (with just £227).

The survey also found that companies in construction are failing to apply for government grants which could help them innovate and diversify. More than 80% of construction firms were unaware that grants are available to support innovation and only 4.1% of construction companies had actually applied for grants.

Richard McWilliams, director of innovation at Capita Symonds, which co-sponsored the survey, says: “Innovation is vital for economic growth and, with ever-increasing frequency, buyers are seeking an innovative approach to ensure continuous improvement and more cost-effective products, processes and services from the supply chain. Often, this translates into a requirement within tender questions for bidders to demonstrate how they are innovating.

“The top line in the survey showed that industry sees the need to innovate to survive, but then they say they don’t have the time or money to invest.

“The majority of money in construction passes through contractors’ hands – it’s a shame they can’t find the cash to innovate on products and services. The difference between a good company and a poor one in this respect is as little as £50,000 a year – that’s one good person.”

The bigger picture will be inevitably one of change as the pace of scientific endeavour gathers speed. Derek Clements-Croome, Emeritus Professor at Reading University, notes: “The rate of innovation is definitely more rapid and is happening across the all aspects of buildings. Even traditional material like concrete is being reinvented into a low carbon version.”

When Fosters recently said it was working with the European Space Agency on “printing” a lunar base on the moon, it no longer sounds like science fiction – suddenly anything seems possible.

Want to innovate but don't have the funds?

Construction companies can make a difference in terms of being more innovative and edging ahead of the competition with as little as £50,000 a year, according to Capita Symonds and Constructionline. Here’s some options on funding it:

Useful websites

Technology Strategy Board


Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council

EU Research & Innovation

Getting a 'super-deduction' for your R&D

R&D tax relief is an EU-funded programme to encourage businesses to invest in product and process improvement, writes Peter Urey of MPA Accountants.

The UK signed up for the scheme in 2003 as part of the Lisbon Treaty which sets a goal of 3% of GDP to be spent on R&D. The UK currently spends 1.7% and Germany 2.8%.

Take-up in the UK is low, particularly in the construction sector. The industry produced just 105 SME R&D tax relief claims in 2010-11 and just 40 large company claims.

The SME scheme allows every £100 of eligible R&D costs to be treated as £225 when calculating corporation tax liability. This accounting technique, called a “super-deduction”, notionally reduces the profit on which tax is payable. Rebates to the corporation tax bill roughly equate to 15% of the value of the investment in R&D. The first claim covers the current and two prior years. For companies with more than 500 employees the super-deduction rate is £130 for each £100 spent.

R&D costs cover activities related to the resolution of technical obstacles in the way of building better products and services. Avoid the stereotype of R&D being done by boffins in lab coats. Think how you improved your product or service and resolved problems for customers. This is happening all the time in the construction industry. So don’t let your accountants put you off.

Typically, eligibility covers time and money spent on conception, creation, design, testing, development work and validation. It also covers work involving the integration of known components to form a new solution where none existed before. Some third party consulting and capital costs are also eligible.

MPA group can be contacted on 01234 912000 or visit

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