Innovation is championed by everyone from politicians to CEOs to start-up founders. A powerful positive force to improve people’s lives and bottom lines, it is just a shame it is much easier preached than practised. Part of the difficulty comes in defining what innovation actually is. Typically, it is used as a synonym for novelty or disruption. However, it is worth diving into the semantics here, as they are two different things.
Novelty refers to an enabling technology or approach that expands or improves our capacity to do or understand something. The minimum bar for publishing a scientific article or being granted a patent is evidence of novelty. Disruption is a step-change in process that alters how something is done and what can be achieved, often it occurs by implementing multiple novelties simultaneously.
The first iPhone combined novel capacitive touch-screens, multi-touch interactions, and wireless radios into a single device to disrupt the smartphone sector. Innovation that results in novelty is essential to keep up with change. Innovation that results in disruption wins Nobel Prizes and makes venture capitalists a lot of money.
One sector often accused of not being particularly novel or disruptive is construction. While we have made exponential progress in technology, our approach to building has lagged behind. The UK construction sector is less productive (6-9 months to build/fit 1 home), and housing is 370% more expensive than it was 25 years ago. This is compounded with its environmental impact, accounting for 1/3 of the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions, of which 30% is embodied carbon from building materials.
While planning reform is essential for meeting house-building targets, and addressing the 4.3mn home backlog, the spotlight should not be on policymakers alone. The problems facing the construction sector are due to a lack of innovation in materials, technology and process, as much as planning. Construction R&D spending (Figure 1) has been rapidly increasing over the last decade. However, despite the huge environmental and economic impact the sector has and its lagging potential for innovation, R&D spend is still miniscule both as a proportion of sector revenue (<0.5%, Figure 2) and total cross-sector R&D spend (<1.5%, Figure 3).
Figure 1 Figure 2 Figure 3
Meeting the challenges facing the sector will require rapidly accelerating momentum behind novel building technologies, and ensuring these compound into disruptive practices that both accelerate construction and reduce its environmental impact.
At Vector Homes, we've focused R&D on technological advances that directly address the sector's inefficiencies and environmental shortcomings. Our research into novel low-carbon and high thermal-efficiency materials contributes results in a building fabric with 80% less embodied carbon than traditional housing. We developed a hyper-standardised panel design that is up to 25% cheaper and 60% quicker to build, enabling easy service routing and future modifications. These innovations (along with additional technologies in the pipeline) aren't just catching the sector up, they're setting a new pace and disrupting house building for the better.