Industry Insights – January 2021: What’s ahead for construction?

By Jen Heil | February 4, 2021

Welcome to the first Industry Insights of 2021 – it’s hard to believe that a month has already passed us by. For this edition, we’ll be taking a look at how the industry is positioned at the start of this year, and reflecting on some of the challenges and opportunities to come. 

Spotlight on: Industry Standards – Will 2021 be the year for positive change? 

2020 was a year of challenges for every sector and construction was no exception. The industry fared better than some, however, with many sites continuing to operate, despite some supply chain disruption and the need to adapt to new, socially-distanced ways of working. It was also a year of reflection, with the pandemic, heightened social justice issues and the looming Brexit deadline all prompting discussions and even some changes that have been percolating for years. 

A consistent thread running through those discussions was the need for a culture shift, supported by improved frameworks. From developing a broader understanding of ‘value’ and shouldering social and environmental responsibility, to overhauling inadequate regulations and standards that contributed to the sector’s less than positive reputation, change is well and truly on the cards for construction and 2021 might just be the year that gets those wheels turning. 

On Monday 25th January the Construction Products Association (CPA) released a first look at the new Code for Construction Product Information (CCPI), marking a significant milestone in the work of theMarketing Integrity Group (MIG). The Code is the result of two years of work by the MIG in response to Dame Judith Hackitt’s report, ‘Building A Safer Future’, and aims to help restore the credibility of the industry by setting out a new benchmark for how product information is presented and marketed by manufacturers. Working from analysis of responses to the Call for Evidence survey, which concluded that “for product and performance information to be trusted, it must be Clear, Accurate, Up-to-date, Accessible and Unambiguous”, the CCPI details 11 clauses setting out processes for achieving this.  

The code went out for industry wide consultation on Monday 1st February and a dedicated microsite has been set up to provide in depth information around the CCPI. It is hoped that the CCPI will be widely adopted across the industry, with manufacturers leaning into this improved approach to product information at all the key stages of information creation, core and associated information, and support and competence. If the sector embraces the code, it could mark a pivotal moment that would ground the construction product industry in integrity. A vital step to rebuilding trust.  

Meanwhile, the government has launched part 2 of the consultation on proposed changes to Parts L and F of the Building Regulations in England. Building on the 2019-20 consultation, which looked at the interim regulations for new homes and ahead to the Future Homes Standard due in 2025, part 2 sets out energy and ventilation standards for non-domestic buildings and existing homes, and proposals to mitigate against overheating in residential buildings. The consultation sets out proposals for an interim standard for new non-domestic projects to come into force in 2022 and the Future Buildings Standard due in 2025 which provides a pathway to highly efficient non-domestic buildings which are zero carbon ready, better for the environment and fit for the future. 

The draft regulations, published on 19th January, include a carbon reduction target of 31% for new homes in England compared with 2013 Part L. The government has also relented to pressure to keep the stipulation on building to minimum fabric energy efficiency standards (FEES), which were proposed to be dropped in the initial consultation. Under the new regulations, councils will be able to continue setting more rigorous local standards, with a new approach to be adopted as part of the planning system reforms, whilst the current loophole that has allowed housebuilders to continue building new homes to old energy standards will be scrapped. 

The finalised version of Part L will be published in December 2021 and will come into force from June 2022, which gives the industry six months to prepare for the changes. You can respond to part 2 of the consultation here. 

Even aesthetic standards are under scrutiny with the government also launching a consultation into a proposed national design code for buildings in England. The consultation, which closes on 27th March, also covers revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework proposed in response tolast year’s report from the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission. The draft national code provides a model for how local authorities should tackle their design oversight role under the new guidelines, offering a checklist focused on topics such as street character, wellbeing and environmental impact.  

The proposed measures would see the word ‘beauty’ specifically included in planning rules for the first time since the system was created in 1947. Housing secretary Robert Jenrick said the design code “will enable local people to set the rules for what developments in their area should look like, ensuring that they reflect and enhance their surroundings and preserve our local character and identity”. Whilst a new national design code alone will not solve the crisis of quality – the government must tackle the small group of big-time developers who often put upfront cost ahead of longer-term value – the acknowledgement of the importance of beauty in this consultation will surely bring hope to those concerned that the modern world has become ugly.  

We’ve only scratched the surface here of all the discussions and developments underway to improve industry standards across the board. It’s an exciting time for construction but it’s going to take commitment from all of us involved in the industry to bring about the positive changes we’re all hoping for. All the consultations mentioned above are linked in the text – head on over and get involved! Now is the time for us all to be change makers. 

Building after Brexit 

A month after the end of the transition period, the UK construction industry is starting to see in practice what it has been somewhat blindly trying to prepare for since the 2016 referendum.  

The flow of goods between the EU and the UK has long been a point of concern and, despite attempts to ease restrictions, increased customs checks, double product conformity assessments and restrictions on products, which do not originate from the UK or the EU, are likely to impact supply chains and slow the progress of construction projects. Those working in the industry will also need to take into consideration the additional costs from duties, or the possibility that there might be limits on quantities of goods imported into the UK. Around £10 billion of building materials are imported to the UK every year and disruption could cause costly delays. 

Another area of concern has been that of the workforce. With the UK already suffering from skills shortages and a significant proportion of the construction workforce coming from EU countries, project costs could well be driven up if demand for labour exceeds supply. Already, over the last 12 months, the UK has lost a quarter of its EU-born workforce, with many EU workers choosing to leave the country before the end of the transition period – an exodus that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The 28% drop was greater than the 7% fall in total employment in construction according to data collected by the Construction Products Association. The new points-based immigration system is already causing confusion and concern has been expressed that the associated costs may impact the industry’s ability to deliver on targets. 

If the industry is to successfully navigate these challenges, firms will need to ensure they are up to date on the new requirements and systems, analyse the potential impact on their business and support EU-born staff through the process of applying to remain. Firms may also wish to consider specific contractual provisions dealing with Brexit related risks when negotiating new contracts 

Innovation insights on the path to net zero 

In the second half of 2020, the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) ran a pilot solutions crowdsourcing project, supporting the achievement of net zero carbon buildings. Arguing that in order to meet the ambitions of the World GBC’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, the UKGBC set out to identify and share high quality, innovative and commercially viable sustainability solutions. 

The project posed two specific challenges to the industry in its call for solutions: 

  1. Making existing buildings net zero operational carbonHow can a building owner improve their existing buildings, with as little physical intervention as possible, to achieve net zero operational carbon by 2030?  
  1. Linking building occupancy to energy use How can office owners and occupiers improve the connection between live building occupancy and the control of building services, to reduce operational energy consumption?  

UKGBC members and the wider industry were invited to participate in these challenges by proposing their solution suggestions via a dedicated Pilot Solutions Portal. UKGBC also held a virtual ‘solutions crowdsourcing workshop’ in September 2020, bringing together a group of UKGBC members to put forward solutions in real-time for discussion.  

Criteria for proposed solutions was kept broad, inviting submissions from around the world and clarifying that solutions did not necessarily need to be ‘new’ but could be innovative adaptations or applications of existing technology and services. The main criteria was that proposed solutions must be possible to implement now, rather than hypothetical concepts. The submissions chosen for inclusion in the resulting Innovation Insights: Reducing Operational Carbon report make for fascinating reading, ranging from broad solutions such as whole house retrofit approaches for social housing to small, singular products, such as a smart thermostatic radiator heating control and data-rich software for monitoring. 

The UKGBC’s solutions crowdsourcing pilot project has highlighted industry demand for and eagerness to contribute toa digital space and process through which challenges and solutions can be collaboratively identified, created, and shared. Knowledge sharing and collaboration are essential if we are to see a successful move towards net zero carbon within the industry. UKGBC have started the hard work of identifying practical, scalable solutions but it’s what the industry, and wider population, choose to do with that information that will make the real difference. 

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