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Decarbonising UK Construction – Where’s The Urgency?

Everyone seems to agree that construction needs to drastically reduce its carbon footprint. This applies to what we build and how we build. Buildings must be easier to heat (not just in theory but in practice) and levels of embodied carbon due to materials and the construction process must be minimised.

Government policy is all about Faster, Greener Better, Building Back Better and shaping a net-zero carbon future. So there’s consensus about the urgent need for change.

Twenty years ago we might have been speculating about what change might look like. Today we don’t have to. We know that construction and the built environment can be decarbonised extremely effectively by creating buildings from components manufactured offsite – particularly those that incorporate high levels of structural timber.

We also know that the marginal gains possible by enhancing traditional methods won’t deliver the scale of change needed.

Where Are We?

We have a climate emergency and proven solutions. Yet offsite construction still accounts for a small percentage of projects in the UK. It’s not easy to get a precise number because the market is fragmented and there’s still some confusion over different types of offsite construction. The figure is most likely between five and ten percent.

This is despite the fact that panelised offsite delivers in terms of reliability and performance. It is also highly scalable. As over a quarter of UK construction is publicly funded the Government is trying to take the lead in accelerating the pace of adoption.

So Why Isn’t Offsite The Norm?

There are two significant and interconnected issues holding back greater use of offsite construction. The main one is inertia in the procurement process. There’s a tendency to stick with the familiar. The other is capacity. And for capacity to expand so that offsite can deliver the majority of construction projects, investment has to be driven by confidence.

If procurement practice changes, investment and capacity building will inevitably expand to match demand. We can then transform the self-perpetuating circle of doubt into a virtuous circle of confidence and expansion. We need to do this urgently.

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