Innovation UK > News > Innovation UK Vol5-2 > The innovation challenge for the built environment

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The innovation challenge for the built environment

We constantly interact with the built environment. From the roads we drive on, the homes we live in, the retail and leisure outlets we visit to the offices, schools and hospitals we work in, we are surrounded by our built environment.

The built environment makes a substantial contribution to the UK?s economy with over two million people employed in the construction sector alone, contributing approximately 8% of the UK?s GDP. This does not include the wider supply chain consisting of the design community, materials and components suppliers, logistics companies and facilities managers who make up the wider built environment industry.

Like many other sectors of the wider economy, the industry is currently facing tough times. Order books are down and margins are being squeezed. Innovation is therefore vital to ensure that the organisations in the UK relying on the built environment maintain their competitiveness and can deliver the buildings, spaces and infrastructure needed for the 21st century and beyond.

How we build and operate our buildings has an enormous impact on our environment. The statistics are quite astounding. Around 50% of the UK?s carbon emissions and water consumption is in buildings, one third of our landfill waste and one quarter of all raw materials used in the economy are attributable to the built environment. The government?s Strategy for Sustainable Construction states that the UK aims to lead the world in sustainable construction. Innovation in new technologies, products and systems is key to enabling the UK to achieve this goal. The UK construction industry is often criticised for its lack of innovation, in fact there is much for it to celebrate.

In the words of Egan: ?The UK construction industry at its best is excellent and its capabilities to deliver the most difficult and innovative projects matches that of any other construction sector in the world.? In order to maintain and improve our competitiveness we cannot stand still, we have not yet met all the challenges that we currently face and there will always be new challenges for the industry around the corner. Capitalising on the opportunities on the global stage is both a challenge and an opportunity, with the UK already well placed in delivering iconic design and leading-edge technology via its world-class architects and consultants. Other parts of our supply chain can also expand their business portfolio by seeking to export their products and services abroad.

The role of the Modern Built Environment Knowledge Transfer Network

The Modern Built Environment Knowledge Transfer Network (MBE KTN) provides the framework to enable innovation to happen more easily. It is funded by the Technology Strategy Board to increase the exploitation of innovation in the built environment for demonstrated business benefit.

The scope of the MBE KTN encompasses design, build and ongoing management of man-made surroundings and the relationship to human activities that take place in them. This covers a very broad landscape, from large civic spaces and infrastructure through to personal space and therefore endeavours to engage with an extended audience which includes architects, contractors, product suppliers, planners and facility managers.

The global and national agendas for increased carbon and energy efficiency and reduced environmental impact will have an increasing economic impact on the built environment over the next decade. This will undoubtedly create new business opportunities for some companies to try and develop competitive advantages over others. To achieve maximum impact the MBE KTN focuses on activities which stimulate short-term economic impact in maintaining competitiveness via promotion of existing innovations which are ready for implementation into current applications. It also stimulates longer-term capability development to ensure future relevance of industry offerings to address global challenges and meet associated targets. This provides focus to funding initiatives by the public and private sector, brokered through bodies such as the Technology Strategy Board.

To date the MBE KTN has over 9,000 members, forming a critical mass of innovators in the built environment. Its activities support fully the Technology Strategy Board?s priorities for competitive research funding, with close alignment to the Low Impact Buildings Innovation Platform, assisted living and value-added manufacturing agenda in order to ensure that its members are best placed to take advantage of funding opportunities and innovations from the platform.

The MBE KTN works with other knowledge transfer networks to find new innovations and technologies from other sectors, that can be successfully applied in the built environment. This includes products and solutions, including materials, electronics, environmental and creative industries and provides significant market opportunity for innovations from these industries.

It would be impossible for the MBE KTN to tackle the full breadth of challenges and drivers for innovation facing the UK construction industry. Working with its members, the MBE KTN has identified four priority challenge themes where innovation can be successfully applied to provide benefits for the UK economy. These themes are: Energy & Carbon Efficiency; Process Efficiency; Climate Change Adaptation; and Life Extension & Refurbishment.

Energy & Carbon Efficiency

Energy demand and supply is heavily influenced by the built environment. As previously mentioned, buildings are responsible for around half of all energy consumed in the UK and nearly 50% of all carbon emissions. The requirement to reduce energy consumption is driven by the need to reduce carbon emissions as well as energy bills and the continued reliance on overseas energy supply. The challenge is not necessarily to develop new products and systems but often to use the right products in the most appropriate way. Insulation and Air Tightness, Lower Carbon Products, Lower Carbon Energy Supply and Building Controls all form part of this larger challenge.

Consultation with industry has identified Lower Carbon Products and their control systems as one of the greatest challenges in this area. As a significant contributor to achieving energy and carbon efficiency, the MBE KTN will focus upon identifying shortfalls in current products to either stimulate new product development or optimised control and usage. Key areas for innovation include lighting, positive air flow and heating systems.

Process Efficiency

The built environment must be designed, built and operated efficiently to deliver optimised business performance. This challenge covers a breadth of issues, closing the circle from how we design buildings through to how users interact with buildings, including the ways in which new technologies and systems can be incorporated into the construction process. Whilst innovation has developed management tools such as BIM, its optimised and appropriate use in conjunction with other tools and convention still requires improvement in understanding and practice.

Systems integration has been identified as a very complex challenge for the industry. How can new systems be effectively and economically incorporated into the build process? This includes a breadth of systems from new construction systems, such as insulated concrete formwork, new environmental systems such as grey-water recycling, new heating systems such as ground-source heating or new building management systems. To enable these systems to deliver their full potential they must be effectively incorporated into the building and not simply stand alone. This is the key innovation challenge for systems integration.

Occupancy Experience is currently a major focus for the MBE KTN. The importance of how occupants interface with buildings is increasingly gaining recognition as one of the most important factors contributing to building performance. The industry must deliver buildings that respond to the occupants needs and enable them to reduce their own carbon footprints. Improvements in interfaces between occupants and building hardware will form a key part of the MBE KTN?s activities in this area. The Technology Strategy Board, through its User Centred Design Sandpit, is recognising the importance of innovation in this area.

Climate Change Adaptation

There is a clear need for the built environment to innovate to adapt to increased frequency of extreme weather events, hotter summers, wetter winters and the associated effects of water availability and thermal comfort. The challenge of climate change has global implications, however the MBE KTN is focused primarily on activities that influence the UK, including thermal inertia, flood resilience and water management.

Thermal inertia has been identified as the most significant challenge for climate change adaptation. This area of activity covers the fabric and design aspects of buildings and thermal comfort issues. It considers the need for protection from extreme external temperatures and also the internal fluctuations in temperature due to building operation and occupancy. Climate change is having a significant impact on the energy consumption of our buildings; it is already estimated that in London more energy is used to cool buildings in summer than to heat them in winter. This is a very worrying trend and represents a tremendous challenge for the industry.

Design for Future Climate Change is an area that the Technology Strategy Board is very much concerned with and will be running a collaborative research and development call in this area in early 2010.

Life Extension and Refurbishment

With the increased realisation that the UK has an ageing infrastructure and building stock, which has to be maintained rather than replaced, there are strong drivers to tackle performance improvement. Innovation in new buildings is all very well, however that forms a very small part of the built environment; the real challenge is the buildings that have been around for many years and will continue to be here for some time to come. Carrying out activities within the confines of an existing structure is altogether more challenging that starting with a blank canvas. This theme considers components of existing structures with similar or new materials to extend life or increase performance. If these solutions are to be implemented widely throughout the built environment we need to emphasise the importance of economic viability. The Technology Strategy Board has recognised the importance of this issue through its Retrofit for the Future competition. The importance of this issue has been reflected in the unprecedented number of applications received.

Engage with the MBE KTN

The MBE KTN is keen to engage a wide range of industry stakeholders in its activities. It relies on the active engagement of industry to:

  • Help us further define these challenges;
  • Influence government priorities for increased investment;
  • Showcase your innovations;
  • Point you towards the UK?s world-leading research capabilities;
  • Help you find solutions from outside the built environment;
  • Help new companies interested in this market; and
  • Put you in touch with the right partners to collaborate with for effective innovation.

Visit for more
information and to engage with the MBE KTN community.

Added the 05 October 2009 in category Innovation UK Vol5-2

Related elements :

Innovation UK Vol5-1
Constructing the future
The Modern Built Environment Knowledge Transfer Network looks at the key innovation drivers for the built environment in 2009.

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