January 4, 2006

Paul Hague shares some of his thoughts on the lack of real innovation in construction amd outlines how research can help signpost the way to success.

Innovation in Construction

Innovations are the lifeblood of any market. A failure to innovate is very often the reason for the demise of a company or an industry. Having invented the Spinning Jenny and kick-started the industrial revolution, British industry has slipped from being a leader in inventions to being a sad follower. The U.S. is in the vanguard with more patent applications than any other country, while Asian countries such as Japan and Taiwan, for many years labeled as copy cats, have left us far behind in terms of the number of patent applications each year.

As you might expect, not every industry is the same. The electronics industry leads patent applications and guess who trails behind all. You’ve got it, the construction industry. Just take a minute and try and think of substantial innovations in the construction industry over the last 50 years. You might mention the rise of plastics, substituting copper pipe in plumbing or replacing slate tiles. We’ve now got plastic guttering instead of cast iron and plastic window frames have replaced the rotting wood.

You might go on and mention the improvements that have been made in construction methods with better insulation, reduced fire hazards, lighter materials and improvements to electrical standards. However, comparing the advances that have been made as the early Amstrads have morphed into the modern Dell’s or crude disinfectants have been replaced by modern day antibiotics, the construction industry has merely been tinkering at the edges. Houses are still built by men who stick one brick on top of another in a very similar way to our Phoenician cousins of 3,000 years ago. They are heated by boiler systems which are clearly more advanced than those developed by the Romans but which could still be recognized as similar in principal to those invented by those early plumbers.

Innovation in Construction

In short, the construction industry has produced very few innovations that are conceptually new and most are simply modifications to existing products. It is revolutionary designs that most people associate with innovations. The Xerox process, the jet engine, the microchip, and penicillin have entered our lives and made significant changes and improvements. Inventions of this kind are markedly absent in the construction industry.

So why have we not seen innovation in any serious sense in the construction industry? What is holding us back? There are three possible reasons. The first limitation to innovation comes from the many regulations that surround the construction industry. Regulations determine the performance that is required from materials used by the industry and in turn this limits the opportunity for innovation. Readers who are old enough may remember the consequences of the too early launch of high alumina fast setting cement in the early 1970s. After a number of high profile disasters involving the collapse of pre-stressed concrete beams, new European standards were introduced. Building regulations are there to protect us. The regulations incorporate a high margin for error; they err on the conservative and traditional and they require proof of performance over many years before they can be approved. They inhibit innovation.