Collaborative Centre for the Digital and Industrialised Built Environment

A proposal is made for BRE with university and industrial partners to establish a Built Environment Collaborative Centre (BECC) operating under a novel business model, to provide a collaborative facility for research, demonstration and scale-up of digital and industrial technologies. The remit includes buildings and infrastructure, promoting productivity and efficiency both in construction and operation, resilience, and international competitiveness for design, engineering and construction companies in the Built Environment sector.

The Centre will entail a new building on the BRE Campus in Watford, supporting at-scale advanced research, demonstration and post-graduate training for the Built Environment and Infrastructure disciplines. It will benefit from BRE’s considerable existing on-site investment in research and testing laboratories.

The concept includes a collaborative facility which undertakes research, demonstration and scale-up of digital, and industrial technologies, promoting productivity and international competitiveness for design, engineering and construction companies in the Built Environment (including Infrastructure) sectors. Industrial technologies are construed as including off-site manufacture, on-site automated fabrication, at-scale additive manufacture for construction, and the information methodologies which connect them such as BIM, CAM for construction, and advanced robotics. Digital technologies that promote efficiencies in operation – distributed sensing via the Internet of Things (IoT) and server-based (Cloud) analytics – are expected to be of great relevance.

Why does the UK need the BECC?

Over the next decade, the built environment sector will encounter particular challenges and opportunities. Productivity and margins in construction are currently low, while client demands for through-life cost-effectiveness and functionality are high and growing. Advanced technologies emerging from academic and private sectors can support the necessary achievement of these demands, but, as a result of risk-aversion and weak absorptive capacity, the industry has been slow in adopting them.

Issues

Government requires all public construction projects to comply with Building Information Modelling (BIM) Level 2 standards by April 2016, however there are substantial knowledge and capability gaps in industries serving the built environment sector, exacerbated by insufficient demonstration and sharing of best practice. Driven by a burgeoning and affordable IoT, particularly wireless sensors, further levels of BIM (following the philosophy of ‘Digital Built Britain’) will follow, which permit live, dynamic data to be associated with the static geometrics of BIM L2. These must be understood and adopted in order to take advantage of smart in-use monitoring and preventative maintenance.

The benefits of pervasive IoT sensors allowing in-use smart monitoring have yet to be realised as a means of reducing operational costs and contingent risks for infrastructure and buildings, yet ubiquitous sensing and powerful server-based data analytic technologies are becoming affordable, and these represent an immediately available benefit to productivity and cost reduction.

Resilience of buildings and infrastructure in the context of extreme weather is an associated challenge to be addressed by physical laboratory and field demonstration facilities.

The proposed BECC will address gaps, including knowledge of, and confidence in, available and near-to-market solutions. This will be done through research using at-scale laboratory facilities, and training at professional and technician levels.

Opportunities

The availability of Internet of Things (IoT) field devices – like autonomous wireless sensors – plus Building Information Modelling including Level 3 (Digital Built Britain), big data analytics (in the Cloud) and open data philosophies, provides a rich landscape for innovation and the development of new and productive methodologies for both construction and operation. ‘Connected Homes’ is an initiative BRE already has underway. Open approaches to BIM, IoT and data analytics will promote SME engagement and the emergence of new business models such as smart facilities management, preventative maintenance services, district energy optimisation and telecare to promote aging-in-place.

In combination with technical opportunities, focussed economic, organisational and social innovations are required to ensure appropriate value distribution to the business actors in a ‘Totex’ (Capex plus Opex) – optimising business environment. The proposed centre will provide the necessary cross-disciplinarity to allow specialists to work together on these hard problems.

The recent UK upsurge in construction activity drives a need to increase productivity and to reduce risk. Emerging technological capabilities provide an opportunity for transformative change in productivity in construction and the operation of assets. To secure these productivity advantages, the UK strategically needs an independent facility for the development and evaluation of technologies, methods, services and materials.

Rationale

A significant benefit to innovation and knowledge productivity will be accomplished by establishing neutral territory to promote pre-competitive collaboration between supply chain peers and their clients, working alongside university and RTO partners. A physical research centre might be based on a university campus, however relatively few universities in the UK have research and teaching strengths in the Built Environment sector. Fewer yet offer laboratory facilities at a scale where experiments can be undertaken with real buildings and sub-assemblies, and none exists on or alongside the UK’s principal research establishment (RTO) for the built environment. The same limitation of little or no laboratory facilities also applies to many blue-chip Engineering consultancies, who largely rely on computer simulation. ‘BECC at BRE’ provides compelling benefits of existing expertise and a well-found facilities base.

Structure and business model

An innovative business model is envisaged to realise and operate the Centre; this breaks away from the Fraunhofer 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 approach. The model is based on joint funding from the public and private sectors for capital and set-up costs, with operational recurrent costs met by the partners alone, although there may be the need for public ‘pilot light’ funding at say 10% of the expected revenue level. The Centre would embody several anchor partners – say four universities and four companies – providing a core subscription income. They would each have an on-site presence and research teams collaborating on pre-competitive close-to-market projects. A larger outer group of ‘spoke’ or associate partners – universities, companies and SMEs would be encouraged to form self-funded temporary consortia around core research projects. Outcomes for these would include project de-risking, skills and knowledge transfer, and network development. For the SMEs in particular (85% of the built environment workforce is represented by these), a crowd-funding model might be used to deliver modules of value as and when needed – e.g. technology updates, CPD, etc.

The BECC is likely to be constituted as a company limited by guarantee – a not-for-profit organisation with stake-holding members including BRE, universities, engineering consultancies and contractors. The facility would be operated by BRE. Capital funding will be by a public-private match of government funding with contribution from member organisations. Revenue funding will be derived from grants, subscriptions, and private sector consortia projects. Governance may be via an independent Steering Board working through an Operations team. ‘Spoke’ associate members – both academic and industrial companies and consortia – will collaborate with hub members in the execution of research projects.

The Centre is likely to comprise a new building on the BRE Campus in Watford, with land donated by BRE. It will support full-scale advanced research and demonstration, plus post-graduate and skills training for built environment disciplines, and will benefit from BRE’s considerable existing on-site investment in research and testing laboratories, also its innovation park in Scotland, promoting regional outreach. BECC may also be associated with facilities based at partner university sites.

Synergies will be realised through collaboration with BRE, including technician staffing by BRE in exchange for access to experimental and analytical equipment. Additionally, the BRE Academy may provide core modules of accredited training for BECC researchers and staff. In a reciprocal manner, the BECC could give BRE Academy students access to the most advanced concepts and kit in built environment research. A team approach focussed on core technologies as well as across disciplines may be helpful, involving BRE technical leaders to diffuse cultures between the BECC and BRE.

BECC will encourage industry and university engagement and collaboration beyond BRE and its core Centre team. It will work closely with engineering consultants and construction companies, and their supply chains to create new productive and cost-effective solutions; these organisations and collaborating universities forming ‘spokes’ of the model. BRE’s University Centres of Excellence, including those overseas (Tsinghua and Brasilia), will enrich this collaboration. BECC will encourage pre-competitive research collaboration, sharing technologies that will promote market development for all, and joining-up parts of currently fractured supply chains.

Fulfilling the needs, modes of operation and themes

The UK construction and built environment sector needs a place where pre-competitive, open-source, enabling research can be undertaken; where companies in the relevant supply chains can co-innovate new solutions with researchers, designers and specifiers. There is also the need to take a socio-technical systems view and to integrate capability and design approaches across social and physical science disciplines.

Research, development and demonstration

The need for new and large-scale facilities is suggested by many areas of research, including:

  • BIM to CAM off-site and just-in-time manufacture – ‘Digital all the way from Design to Build’
  • On-site macro-scale building and infrastructure construction using advanced manufacturing methods, such as at-scale additive manufacture, and automated fabrication of sub-assemblies
  • In-use diagnostics and preventative maintenance, replacing expensive scheduled maintenance
    • Sensing and automated analysis of infrastructure and building states
    • Automated / robotic inspection
  • Advanced materials in construction (perhaps working with the High Value Manufacturing Catapult)
    • Curable soft and formable materials
    • Evaluating aerospace and automotive technologies in construction
  • Making ‘Digital Built Britain’ real
    • Connected homes – the next steps – server-based analytics in the Cloud for energy, wellbeing and security management
    • BIM Level 3 laboratory – integrating dynamic variables with static geometrics – open systems linked by meta-language frameworks
    • Value of ‘Smart Facilities Management’ – predictive rather than scheduled maintenance for infrastructure and buildings
    • At-scale test-beds – data-rich environments of realistic size
  • Structural dynamics lab
    • Optimising design and material use for structures built from novel materials using novel processes
    • Active damping in infrastructure and building design
  • Methods and materials for extreme weather – adapting to climate change
    • Testing current and new methods of making buildings and infrastructure more resilient
  • Design and engineering for behavioural outcomes
    • Influencing resource usage, wellbeing and productivityEarly-win research themes
  • Instrumented structures – relating to ‘Digital Built Britain’ BIM Level 3 demonstration
  • Preventative maintenance for infrastructure and buildings – combining real-time embedded sensors with (cloud) analytics
  • Investment quality energy auditing – de-risking retrofit for energy saving

Training

The availability of experts who will specify, design and deploy new construction and operations management methods is vital. Training need covers doctoral and masters level expertise, plus – through a partnership with the BRE Academy and a local FE college, technician capability. To achieve effective learning we propose:

  • Learning from practice, and alongside BRE staff
  • Postgraduate training through a Centre for Doctoral Training model
  • BECC as a Knowledge Transfer Partner hub – getting knowledge out to SMEs
    • A KTP ‘college’ will be hosted, with staff deployed to SMEs on a time-share basis
  • Research degrees will be available to BRE staff who collaborate with the BECC

Key business and economic uplift benefits envisaged

  • A neutral space promoting pre-competitive collaboration in research, development and demonstration – a ‘slipway’ for launching new technological capabilities
  • De-risking innovation, allowing demonstration to clients and all parts of the construction supply chain
  • Development of Totex-optimised business models, enabling servitisation of the construction and asset operation sectors
  • Active help for the adoption of BIM Level 2 and further (Digital Built Britain) developments
  • Provision of large Civil Engineering laboratories near London – a ‘public good’ with strong potential for job-creation and skills uplift
  • Sustainable engagement with HEIs, Innovate UK and research councils through a governance partnership

Professor Jeremy Watson CBE FREng

BRE Chief Scientist & Engineer

October 2015

Revised January 2016

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