It would be an understatement to say the construction industry is going through an important episode of change, where in light of recent events and Dame Hackitt’s review, it is clear the industry needs to start building for a safer future.
No period of change is linear or straightforward, particularly when a thorough inspection of building regulations is required. Although the industry is crying out for better legislation, the key stumbling point is, ironically enough, the UK government. For the industry to keep looking forward, more government intervention is required. We can’t play the game if we don’t know the rules.
The industry cannot stand around waiting for change, we have to be proactive. In this no-man’s-land however, companies can still be efficient and plan for the future; where Baumit, for instance, is turning to different construction techniques across Europe to look at new ways to build. Baumit is looking at techniques, such as not needing a ventilation cavity, to prepare themselves for any new building requirements potentially released by the government. This level of preparation ensures businesses stay on top of change; see it as pre-empting the wave rather than simply riding it.
Furthermore, it would also be sensible to look at how Europe builds its homes. By turning to European building practices, for example, we can learn a thing or two about ourselves. This in turn might set in motion the industry’s important cultural change. In Europe, countries including Austria have longer mortgage periods, as typically houses are passed down from generation to generation. When building a house, there is a greater incentive to make buildings last longer as homes are built with the occupants in mind. To put it simply, there is more emphasis on the homeowner.
In comparison, the UK house-building ecosystem is built on the premise of churning out house by house in the most cost-effective way possible. In these cases, quality and personality are inevitably compromised or lost as the focus lies completely on value engineering – where quality is cut for the sake of value.
Comparing U-values in the UK and Austria will offer a little perspective on this matter. U-value measures how effective a building’s thermal efficiency, or insulation, is. The lower the U-value the higher the building performs. In Austria the average U-value is 0.16 but in the UK it is 0.3; mainly because countries on the continent tend to build with concrete which offers great natural thermal insulation. This statistic emphasises how the UK must start to lower the U-value rates of its buildings in order for houses to perform to higher, better standards.
Offering better products
With this viewpoint in mind, companies can improve traditional products to increase the performance of buildings. For instance, Baumit is developing a system which will be a more efficient alternative to monocouche, the largest render product used across the country. Monocouche is a single layer through colour render, mixed onsite and applied by contractors to bricks and blocks and masonry substrates. At the moment, monocouche is not meeting the mark in building standards, and is lacking in sustainability. The product cannot withstand settlement cracks for instance; not only does it compromise a façade’s longevity, it is expensive to repair.
To combat this, Baumit has developed Unirend, an alternative to monocouche. Unirend comprises three of Baumit’s products; a base coat, a primer and then a silicone based topcoat. The silicone based topcoat is the most important part as it is a flexible product which copes with the movement that comes with a building’s settling time. This system will not crack and is very easy to maintain, clean and repair should any issues arise.
This new product development showcases how Baumit is working proactively without much direction from the UK government. If UK construction firms aren’t getting their answers from the government, then they should feel confident looking further afield; analysing current, unsustainable models to make them more fit for contemporary purpose.
What will the change bring?
Whilst it is fundamental for businesses to keep developing new products, we are still reliant on better government legislation, particularly as this has the potential to change the products we use to build.
In terms of broader changes, we might see greater control from the architect, in order to ensure quality control throughout a project’s lifespan. Onsite, we might see the return of nominated subcontractors; whereby the architect on a project specifies a company to perform a particular task. Yet, this inevitably raises some questions on whether we have enough experienced architects for these jobs.
BIM might also help the industry. But, whilst BIM offers more coordination, in the sense that it’s an electronically-controlled 3D model allowing companies to update product specification at any stage, it is still costly to implement for companies further down the construction pyramid.
Really, these changes remain completely speculative until the government provide the industry with better regulations. But even if these regulations are released, it will take time for the industry to settle and acclimatise itself to the change. The catch here is that the industry can’t just stand around waiting for it to happen, it is has to keep progressing and keep adapting to the challenges day-to-day construction life brings. In the meanwhile, the best thing businesses can do is look for inspiration on the continent, both in terms of its products and practices. We might learn a thing or two from Europe still.
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