“There are lots of areas of the economy where we expect products to reduce in price year on year,” notes Tim Chapman, Leader — Infrastructure London Group at Arup, the firm which provides engineering, design, project management and consulting services for all aspects of the built environment. “So why not construction? Why shouldn't infrastructure projects get leaner and more efficient, too?”

Indeed, this year's Government's Infrastructure Cost Review noted that, in 2011, the Government Construction Strategy set out to achieve savings in central government construction of up to 20 per cent. Tighter budgets across the board mean that construction innovation — ideas which save money while making the built environment better — is more important than ever.

For example, Chapman points to a water company that set itself a challenge to reduce its embodied carbon emissions, and found a strong correlation between reducing its project costs and carbon reduction. “The critical thing for a company such as this is to reduce the 'whole life cost' of its facilities,” says Chapman. “In other words, it might build a sewage treatment works more cheaply, but if the result means increased operating costs, that's a bad saving. The ideal is to build infrastructure which has a lower capital cost and operates more efficiently, giving better value over the longer term.”

 

Rewarding

Any innovation involves risk. Yet, if it works, that risk can be rewarding, both creatively and financially. “If you're in the business of building road schemes and you build them the same way again and again, over and over, you might find yourself paying five per cent more every year for each one you complete,” says Chapman. “Whereas if you experiment with something novel and it saves money then, in the long term, the cost savings can be significant over many similar projects.”

Currently, one of the challenges the construction industry faces is finding ways to be more sustainable. Chapman says that Arup is investing time and effort in three areas: lower carbon; making 'big' infrastructure that is more acceptable to local communities; and infrastructure resilience. Big challenges like these require big innovations.

“When it comes to innovation, companies need to be impatient and curious,” he says. “If they are complacent, they might find that, suddenly, a competitor comes along and disrupts their market, totally. Being curious always means asking: 'Ah, I wonder if we can do that better?'  Asking a lot of 'what if?' questions in this industry is incredibly important.”