Smart Cities

UK Construction Policy Falls Short of Targets But Shows Significant Potential

“We’re on the edge of a revolution in how we build – one that could help us transform our society, delivering more productive public services. With new construction technology and processes, we can build better hospitals, schools, offices, and homes; and in turn, create better outcomes for everyone,” reads a recent report from international consultancy and construction firm Mace. “To do that, we need a change in mindset across the sector. We need to focus on our end-users – the teachers, nurses and office workers – that actually use the buildings we design and build.” Mace has been working with the UK government on its One Public Estate (OPE) program that encourages local councils to work with central government and other public sector organizations to share buildings and re-use or release surplus property and land. Launched in 2013, in response to a growing housing crisis in the UK, the project set out targets to repurpose […]

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“We’re on the edge of a revolution in how we build – one that could help us transform our society, delivering more productive public services. With new construction technology and processes, we can build better hospitals, schools, offices, and homes; and in turn, create better outcomes for everyone,” reads a recent report from international consultancy and construction firm Mace. “To do that, we need a change in mindset across the sector. We need to focus on our end-users – the teachers, nurses and office workers – that actually use the buildings we design and build.”

Mace has been working with the UK government on its One Public Estate (OPE) program that encourages local councils to work with central government and other public sector organizations to share buildings and re-use or release surplus property and land. Launched in 2013, in response to a growing housing crisis in the UK, the project set out targets to repurpose sufficient council-owned land for at least 160,000 homes by 2020. The hope was to show how public sector partnership working could act as a catalyst for driving forward better asset management that supported the provision of local services and, ultimately, saved money for the taxpayer.

“The country’s need for new housing – in the right places and at the right price – has become greater as the housing crisis has continued. OPE, therefore, puts a special emphasis on freeing-up land for house building, alongside other objectives of better services and efficiencies,” reads a Q4 2019 report from the UK government. “One Public Estate sits in the center of local and central government and this is a key factor in developing honest brokerage across the public sector.”

The estate transition program for the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (formerly known as BIS), is a good example of the types of savings that can be achieved by such programs. This project saw a reduction of more than 50% in the department’s UK-wide property portfolio, from 130 to just 60 office sites. Resulting in the relocation of 4,200 members of staff and 40% reduction of office space achieved savings estimated to be worth more than £100m per year.

At the end of 2019, it was reported that OPE has already generated £2bn by repurposing more than 1,000 properties, with £164m gained in capital receipts from land and property development. However, with just 40,000 homes brought to market on public land sold through both the current and previous Public Land for Housing programs by May 2019, OPE has fallen well short of its target to unlock enough council-owned land for at least 160,000 homes by 2020.

“While sufficient land has been identified for 160,000 homes, it is clear that the ambition to release this land by 2020 will be achieved to a longer timeframe. Departments have agreed immediate actions to identify more land to bring into the program and to accelerate disposals where possible to improve performance,” states the May 2019 program progress report. “We need more new housebuilders, and existing builders to do more if we are to meet our housing supply ambitions. We also need to see greater innovation in the way homes are constructed.”

Despite the program not meeting its targets, the UK government’s efforts and ambitions are commendable both in solving the country’s housing crisis and leading by example for the globally important issue of better land utilization. The UK government has also been internationally recognized for using constructions contracts of public assets to drive the adoption of Building Information Modelling (BIM), seen as a crucial software platform for more efficient construction of smarter and greener buildings.

The government’s construction strategy for 2016 to 2020 (GCS 2016-20) mandated the use of BIM level 2 for all public sector property developments. As part of the Digital Built Britain policy also sets out the aim to move towards BIM level 3, which is expected in the coming year or two, an ambition that is not universally welcomed by the industry. “We may have three or four software platforms that are okay for design and construction, but talking about Level 3 BIM when we're struggling with Level 2 seems bizarre,” says Robert Klaschka, of London-based architectural designers Klaschka Studios.

Leading by example or charging ahead without much thought whether the sector can keep up is now the question being posed towards the UK government’s Digital Built Britain and OPE programs. Being 120,000 homes short of a 160,000 new homes target certainly draws doubt upon the government’s competency or their use of unrealistic goals to impress voters in this turbulent era for British politics. However, few would argue with the ambition to make better use of finite land resources and ensure that the buildings themselves meet modern energy and space efficiency standards.

Furthermore, the process of repurposing and redevelopment that has taken place has highlighted the less tangible but very clear benefits that modern design approaches have on the occupants of those buildings. By accelerating the evolution to more user-centric design and bringing about earlier supply chain engagement and product solutions, buildings such as hospitals, schools, and offices could be developed in a way that enhances productivity and delivers better outcomes for society.

By adopting new construction technologies and processes much faster, the UK’s public sector has the potential to reap the significant benefits of productivity-enhancing buildings. Such developments could boost productivity of the UK’s national health service (NHS) by the equivalent of 13,500 new nurses according to a report by Mace titled Transforming society: Using construction as a catalyst to deliver change. The report suggests that new design, construction and operations approaches, could also help to enhance productivity in schools, allowing teachers to claim almost 50 million hours of collective working time back each year.

“If we harness the benefits of our public assets properly, we can introduce new smart building technologies that will give design teams and consultants access to significantly more data about how people actually use buildings than ever before,” says Donna Heath is associate director at Mace. “This, coupled with smart energy systems and similar technologies, could help us to build a significantly more advanced property portfolio for the public sector. One which has people and productivity at its heart, while at the same time unlocking land for new infrastructure and much needed new homes.”

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