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Sustainable construction: we must exploit tech solutions…

Michael Green Architecture, Digital Build, CLT & Traditional barn montage

We must build on 1000’s of years of knowledge in tandem with latest technology that works for us all, without damaging the environment and economy we live in.

At the start of the 2020’s, the time for debate and activism on policy in sustainable design is over. Practical solutions are the key, delivered immediately for positive change to happen, in Scotland and beyond. We must confront the existential threat of climate change. This means using our depth of knowledge in tandem with the latest technology, without damaging the environment and economy we live in. A holistic, inclusive focus on this goal can help solve systemic problems we have in construction and industry as a whole. Lean manufacturing and resource-efficient, sustainable economy supply chains should be integral to the mass market.

In advanced economies we are gifted with huge capacity to produce, make and build with the resources we have on our own doorstep. Technology can help integrate and connect this vast resource to be available to all, providing affordable and better quality for the customer. In turn the market becomes sustainable over the long term, and profitable without detrimental impact.

Carbon friendly, net zero construction, built on circular economic infrastructure, can give a sustainable future for industry. But how do we get there?

BARRETTS GROVE, Groupwork + Amin Taha

Step one: “Nail it and scale it”

Invest in a local, modular, scalable, interconnected manufacturing industry. Find what works, then repeat the small successes to build a new industrial ecosystem.

Step two: “Agile open-source Data”

Set governance for data built on open standards for better communication, collaboration and growth of creative ideas. I call this “Agile open-source Data” (Ao-sD)

Perthshire, Glenalmond timber

Good ideas grow organically

What do these terms and steps mean? How do we implement them? I will attempt to elaborate my view in more detail in this and future posts.

Ultimately, the answers are all around us. I seek to focus on the bigger picture, involve more people to debate, and discover through sharing. My background is highly technical in construction, but in my experience solutions can be found in many areas, often in the place you least expect. I live in Scotland, and can see why a new approach can and will be implemented here, but the ideas are universal and repeatable elsewhere, for example a great idea such as mass timber can be adopted anywhere with trees and a demand for buildings. .

I will explain below how the two key steps “Nail it and scale it” and “Agile open-source data” can encourage local production, in tandem with global partnerships. The aim is to reduce reliance on imports and focus on primary industry supply chains with sustainable material production, such as timber.

Step one: “Nail it and scale it”

Mass timber modular manufacturing, focussed on Primary industry…

Circular economy industrial process

Scotland can use primary industry supplies for products, and focus on innovation with small/medium business and “micro manufacturing” local supply chains. Mass timber production is a key example — using our amazing home-grown forestry to make advanced panels, such as CLT(cross laminated timber) alongside innovation in off-site solutions.. We have the primary timber, the market demand, advanced manufacturing expertise, government support, academic knowledge and also some of the best technology innovations in the world.

Scottish Government funds could gain significantly, with Government investment in home grown manufacturing and supply chains leading to big wins for communities and the country as a whole. Direct collaboration with the industry would reinvigorate the private sector, generating jobs and creating economic value.

BARRETTS GROVE, Groupwork + Amin Taha

Mass timber — key benefits

Sidewalk LABS Toronto, an entire city district built in mass timber

Mass timber — the key benefits….

  1. The simplicity of mass timber to design and build means re-engaging the labour market. As a material it is both beautiful and practical to use, fast to build, and versatile, with an honesty to its natural finish. This means both new jobs and making existing jobs better with very little training.
  2. A new direct material supply ecosystem (i.e. buy-in direct from local sources) can allow better communication between council departments seeking to enforce low-carbon building regulations, checking compliance beyond planning approval. With materials tracked to the source, Net Zero carbon and circular economy policy targets can be practically delivered.
  3. The system will cut the administration time for processing statutory building regulation approvals & codes at a local level. As a new national standardised accredited details library emerges it can catalyse “pre-approvals” freeing up resources such as building control staff. Currently far too much time is spent on administration due to legal requirements, constant checking and paperwork on every single product. One by one in each district, standard timber details and specifications would become common, with factory guarantees. Localised research & development knowledge and spending would be re-invested directly in much faster cycles.
  4. In the same way it should speedup planning approvals as government departments dealing with policy focussing on sustainability can refer to specific products and have a simpler understanding of the parameters effecting carbon emissions. This shifts the balance of market material supply to give specifiers and customers direct access to products that are made near where the products are built. So for example — quality local hardwood on cladding or finish is more affordable and attainable.
  5. Carbon emissions for the low embodied energy in the product are negative (better for environment). As CLT is so much better with energy efficiency and more likely to perform in the real world, once built, not just the theory. It allows us to pioneer the material science and push the performance boundaries further. National Carbon targetswill be much easier to meet as CLT has much higher performance and the performance “in use”, matches the reality. Currently buildings have huge margin of error for measurement and a gap between the theoretical certificated target and the building reality. Almost nobody publishes “in-use” building performance data so it can’t be scrutinised allowing the best designs to be highlighted and improved upon.
  6. Direct factory purchase will cut out middle-men and unnecessary intermediaries, reducing the cost to build for people that are currently locked out of the market. This will also add more labour to more productive jobs and skills that are desperately needed in construction and manufacturing.
  7. This will lead to increased economic activity in the construction sector by introducing new buyers & small businesses which generate more tax revenue from a “smart factory” approach with high growth. The established large developers will be disrupted positively with a more level playing field for competition. Reduced costs and increased production can solve market failures, such as the severe lack of low cost housing. Government national housing targets cannot be met unless we think differently, allowing housing to be built more widely and at affordable levels. Fringe and rural communities that have seen decades of decline will see an influx of young families and business coming back to live where they grew up but could never afford. The regions then have growth, reinvigorated with a more diverse population.

For those interested in finding our more about mass timber there is lots out there such as this report

Step 2: “Agile open-source Data” (AosD)

A data platform fit for modern methods of construction, freely available to all…

A single platform like google allows greater collaboration — but should a private company own our data infrastructure?

It’s easy to say we want sustainable design, but how do we deliver and prove a product or building is sustainable? In the UK, 100’s of reports and schemes have attempted to reduce carbon emissions within building for several decades, but the reality is that emissions are flat or increasing. Often “real world data” on the ground doesn’t match the theory. Multiple reports often sit on desks for the next politician/executive to read while business as usual solutions are built everywhere. This is not the fault of any individual or party or business, it is the logical outcome of the lack of clarity on standard data and policy.

The Open Data Institute

We know there is another way to break this impasse by publishing empirical data to reflect & measure scientifically to agree on what is sustainable. We need to build consensus and trust to encourage “good actors” to flourish and the damaging business as usual process to be filtered out.

Carbon tracking & open data governance

One example of this approach would be to introduce carbon tracking that is fully verified. Therefore, by-design, mass-timber and equivalencies in sustainable, local production are continually proven to meet net-zero targets. However all the construction data needs to be compared and built on an open platform, good and bad.

A solution to this problem is to build “Agile Open-Source Data” (AosD) which brings industry, academia, government and importantly, the public, together to collaborate on a common goal. Robust, scientific comparison and collaboration can then cross all stakeholder datasets. Current innovative technology can enable this collaboration with digital twins for empirical data to co-exist with virtual data. This record can be tracked & verified in real time. Below are some key benefits in building this AosD standard.

  1. Ineffective government spending on procurement and financial support to “business as usual” high carbon construction companies can be re-directed to give better value to the taxpayer. When the data is open source and everyone is contributing towards a common goal with government infrastructure, innovation happens naturally.
  2. Enhanced standardised, accredited details provided by government.Typical, robust construction details that comply with standards should be common knowledge and available to all. Data when managed by the government in this way could be hugely liberating, as it starts to be deemed part of the infrastructure of the whole construction process, which is open, transparent and overseen by all involved.
  3. Innovative repeatable designs can be agreed. For example one possibility is to build “Open Scot CLT details” within a new “open BIM(Building Information Modelling)” framework could have generic data for product performance so that variation can be accepted in the overall construction. The details can be generated from a typical warrant approved 3D BIM Model template, so components can also be used by everyone, including the manufacturer’s. This allows partnership and collaboration to a shared common goal — improving construction specifications for higher quality buildings. Data could be added the model for individual design requirements and published before and after building completion. The Austrian government and industry know how important this is and this site proves it. A powerful example of a collaborative approach to 3D BIM can be seen in the modelling of Notre Dame
  4. Potential to improve financial markets, de-risk lending and refocus fintech products that are better value for the customer. For too long the market has been controlled primarily by developers, wealthy clients, land owners and house builders. A level playing field for data means keeping commercial players on their toes, having to increase product quality though design & innovation, not by market control. A competitive marketplace will allow more competition and innovation to flourish. Financial business cases for developments are in turn made MORE viable, so land capacity is increased.
  5. Open data will also boost design quality in Architecture & manufacturing, giving our world beating talented designers and builders a chance they never had, into a market that has been dysfunctional and controlled by a few. Designers need to be connected to the makers in order to produce better products.

It is well documented how successful an open source approach helps deliver good design and infrastructure. This article shows a few story’s and I believe now is the time to build open source data platforms for construction.

I believe bold ideas of this magnitude are exactly what the construction industry needs, here in Scotland and beyond to break away from the failed status quo. We simply can’t practically deliver on targets & promises to future generations unless fundamental structural changes are made. Sustainability, cutting edge technology & Architecture can be holistic and integrated for all.

I love positive ideas, vision and practical solutions to make them happen. I believe we all need to focus on what we want, for the future of the industry and environment we live with hope for its long term protection for it to be enjoyed by generations to come. For me right now I see hope in mass timber & manufacturing investment, digital construction and good open source data that is shared for the benefit of all.

We need to ask ourselves, what role can we all play to help build better buildings that protect and enhance the places we live and work? It is not up to any one group to decide, we have a collective responsibility in every profession and civic life. Not only the builder, Architect, engineer, but society as a whole need to be more engaged with each other to find the answer to this question by building bridges for collaboration with an intergenerational response.

I’m halfway through my life so find myself looking both optimistically ahead as well as back at our greatest achievements in the home I live. But I think we have waited too long to do something about unsustainable, ineffective normal. Maybe there is a better way to think beyond normal — I certainly think there is, so let’s just do it. We can ‘think local & act global’ starting here in Scotland if we work together. We are natural born innovators and blessed with all the resources we need.



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