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The need for decentralised high-tech modular

Paul Dunn Executive Director CallisonRTKLFollowing decades of apathy and minimal change, the construction industry needs to wise up, writes Paul Dunn of CallisonRTKL.

The UK construction sector accounts for approximately 55% of the total annual materials consumption and buildings contribute 50% of total C02 emissions. BRE reported that buildings are also responsible for 30% of total UK water use and 35% of arising waste. The breakdown of global industrial carbon emissions shows that 54% comes from the manufacture and processing of five stock materials – steel (25%), cement (19%), paper (4%), plastic and aluminium (both 3%) – all of which are prevalent in construction.

Other industries, such as manufacturing, healthcare and technology, have evolved over the years. They have embraced technological advances and refined their processes and the materials they work with in ways that would be unrecognisable to a worker in the same industry 50 years ago. The construction industry has not evolved a fraction as much as it should have done – this needs to change.

Carbon positive buildings

The industry must aspire for buildings that keep giving, generating more energy than they consume. Carbon positive projects can make significant contributions by helping to address the damaging impacts of past building practices and lifestyles, and by offsetting situations where carbon neutral buildings are not possible.

Construction materials and components must be sustainably sourced and manufactured, aligned to reducing dependence on inefficient large, carbon-churning transportation. We are yet to fully recognise the benefits of timber frame construction, light-gauge rolled steel panel systems and even recycled materials like peanut shells. Our buildings must be assembled from components that can easily be recycled, upcycled or repurposed because reducing or eliminating waste is mission critical.

Technology is the saviour and is advancing faster than ever. Innovation and invention show no bounds and are embedded in virtually all walks of life. To achieve transformational change in our industry, design, technology and construction must be fully integrated. The industry must go further in embracing digital, advanced materials and new technologies.

Design for manufacture and assembly off-site effectively forces the union of design and construction, while integration of manufacturing technology will drive production line efficiencies in construction. This will not only reduce wastage in raw materials, but in transport, time, cost and carbon too.

Technology and manufacturing will help evolve our buildings as products. We are living at a time when flawless quality is truly viable, when digital models and simulations with real-world building data create endless possibilities for monitoring, machine learning and human-centred design. We must secure integrated whole-building design from inception to afterlife.

Lessons from the automotive industry

We are currently working on a concept that draws on fabrication techniques prevalent in the automotive industry, particularly around monocoque fabrication. This is a highly efficient structural system in which loads are supported by an object’s external skin – similar to an eggshell – rather than a series of complicated and heavy traditional beams. The key to this method is its low weight and the ability to be easily transported.

‘Net zero in use’ and ‘net zero embodied carbon’ are a pre-requisite here. Our concept is high performing thermally and embedded with renewable technology. The plan is for factory-installed immersive and multi‐functional digital services, with remote diagnosis, virtual updates and fixes. Of course, everything will be controlled from an app and handheld devices.

This forms the perfect response to the wider trend in terms of localism and decentralisation and can efficiently facilitate smaller units of schools, healthcare and workplace buildings to develop local centres and communities around the 15-minute city or even one-minute city concepts.

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