The new radicals: why net zero means embracing risk

April 2021

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Construction’s cautious approach to new products is undermining its net-zero aspirations before we’ve really begun, writes David Glover. Good ideas need to hit the mainstream fast — and engineers have to lead the way

During my career as a consultant, I spent a lot of time trying to bring on new products and materials and push the boundaries of design. As an engineer, that’s in my blood, but I have often found myself frustrated with the slow pace of progress. Nothing new there, you might say. Traditional methodologies have always held sway in construction. New technologies or ideas are typically viewed with suspicion, and it can take decades before those outside the cutting edge are comfortable enough to specify something.

What is new, however, is that we need to start doing things — everything — very differently now if we are going to reach the goal of a net-zero world by 2050. We don’t have decades to spare. Since I moved to a company that is selling a “new” product (which has in fact been around for 20 years), I have gained a fresh perspective on why traditional methodologies remain so prevalent. The challenge is not in developing new materials or products: there is no shortage of innovation in construction. The challenge is to make the leap to the mainstream.

What we need is less project management and more technical management. Designers are best placed to clarify where risks lie and where the boundaries can safely be pushed

Mass adoption is important because when you’re making a new product, the first unit is always going to cost twice what it will in three years’ time. Orders need to hit a certain level to justify the investment in making the process more efficient. If the industry is actually going to change, it is that issue of scale that we have to resolve.

This is where consultants have a really important role to play. Anything new has to offer some benefit, whether that’s in speed of installation, sustainability or the potential for reuse. But it can be a balancing act, as innovators find themselves caught between showing why a product is better than what already exists — and trying to make it look “normal” so as not to scare people off. Fundamentally, this is about how we manage risk — whether of building failure, financial loss or reputational damage — and that requires an in-depth understanding of how things work.

What we need is less project management and more technical management. Designers are best placed to work with manufacturers to support the development of new products, and clarify for clients where risks lie and where the boundaries can safely be pushed. We have to help them understand that a higher capital expenditure upfront won’t necessarily be reflected in the final cost. A new product will typically be more expensive in a straight comparison, but it may pay back in different ways — for example, by saving months on a construction programme.

Innovators find themselves caught between showing why a product is better than what already exists — and trying to make it look “normal” so as not to scare people off

We also have to be prepared to challenge existing codes and standards — and again, this will require design expertise. Regulation, testing and certification regimes are not set up to encourage the use of new products. To be sold in Europe, for example, many products must have a CE certificate. But if a product is new, there is no code assessment process to award it a CE certificate, so it will be offered an exemption instead. Some specifiers are prepared to accept this, but many are not. In a risk-averse culture, it’s too easy to say that something doesn’t have the right documentation, rather than looking at the valid data that is in front of you. Most engineers know how to properly assess whether something is genuinely a new idea and whether it is any good. I’ve always believed that it’s our job to write the codes, not just to follow them.

As an expert, it’s very easy to find technical reasons not to try something new, or to demonstrate through rational argument why you shouldn’t take a chance or push a boundary. We have to stop ourselves from doing that. To make a real change, we need to think flexibly and use all of our intelligence, creativity and technical ability to make sure we’re not putting unreasonable hurdles in the way of the future.

David Glover is chief executive of SPS Technology

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