Innovation in the Built Environment

By Michael Karling - UKGBC Residential Course


Innovation is the key to growth in any industry.  However, the construction industry is at a standstill, stuck in the old way of doing things.  Today, the world’s largest taxi company, Uber, doesn’t own a single taxi, the world’s largest hotel company, AirBnB, doesn’t own a single hotel, the world’s largest car company, Waymo, doesn’t have a single car on our roads today, and the world’s 3rd largest electricity company, Tesla, doesn’t generate a single kWh. Industries that have been around for hundreds of years are embracing innovation and are taking over the mainstream.  

Yet, in the construction industry, the pushback to BIM since its implementation three years ago has proved significant.  Compare this to other design engineering sectors, where they have been using such methodologies and software to collaborate with their supply chains, manufacturers and customers for over a decade.  The root causes of this pushback are easy to identify given the amount of money invested in research and development.  The global average for company investment into R&D, regardless of industry, is 3.6% of sales, with companies like Intel putting over 20% of sales into R&D.  Meanwhile, it is estimated that the construction industry as a whole invests just 0.7% of sales into finding the next breakthrough in the built environment.  Despite this low investment, changes are coming to the industry that may leave many companies behind.  3D printers can build a house in just 24 hours, flexible workspaces like WeWork threaten to change the commercial office market in a profound way.  The success of The Collaborative as a consultant that designs and builds communities has changed the expectations of the industry to provide more than just bricks and mortar.

It is within the above context at a time when the industry is in shock from Carillion’s liquidation and as Capita’s share price has plummeted, that I arrived in Manchester for the UKGBC’s Future Leader’s Programme Residential.  The aim of the course is to develop the next generation of business leaders who can drive change in all sectors of the construction industry to create a more sustainable built environment.  The residential was led by Nick Jankel, CEO and Co-Founder of Switch On - a leadership, personal development and innovation consultancy.  Nick’s presentations, supported by guest speakers from Arup, Hillbreak, Interface and Future Leaders alumni, were thought provoking and challenged perceptions of what power individual companies have to take ownership of global sustainability issues, innovation and ultimately wider change.


The delegates were separated into teams and introduced to “Innovation Challenges”.  In our teams over the next nine months we will aim to identify a potential breakthrough that will address an issue within the Built Environment.  Teams are developing business plans that tackle issues like; lack of diversity, the skills gap, air quality, loneliness and building materials waste.  Working alongside my team, who are representatives from Grosvenor, Cundall and Skidmore Owings & Merrill; our challenge statement given is “How can we ensure our building stock is ready for the future (tougher sustainability standards and a warming climate)?”

My instinct when presented with this challenge was to lean on my knowledge gained through working as a low carbon consultant for Banyards by looking at the problem through the lens of energy consumption.  However, within five minutes of talking to my group I was really interested to hear very different interpretations of sustainability and their implication on the direction we could go, for example, flood protection for homes that are now under threat thanks to rising sea levels and bursting rivers.  

There are 17 UN sustainable development goals to transform our world and by putting our built environment in the context of each of these goals a different set of problems that need to be solved present themselves.  blog3.jpegFor example, with regards to sustainable development goals 3 and 11; in the UK, Tracey Crouch MP has been appointed as Minister for Loneliness to address the societal breakdown of communities and rise of social media replacing meaningful human-to-human interaction.  'WeWork' and The Collaborative have shown that there is a desire for community spaces within new buildings to create a sense of wellbeing.  This led the team to the question; could there be an opportunity to transform our existing building stock to satisfy this apparent demand for community?

Following Nick Jankel's "switch on" methodology, I will be working with my group to find a tangible and addressable insight regarding the adaptability of our existing building stock.  The next session at the end of April where we will start to develop our insight into a business model.

The need for industry to take ownership of the sustainability crisis is paramount, regulation can no longer be depended on.  It has been two years with no sign of the 2016 building regulations, subsides for renewables are diminished and the US has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement.  The need for leaders and innovation is greater than ever and I am excited to be representing Banyards as part of such an inspiring UKGBC programme.

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