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UK Platform Design enters new phase

From 3 to 5 March, 2020, Future Build UK will bring together industry influencers and shapers in London. Together, they wish to drive change within the building and construction industry. One of the institutions taking the stage is the Construction Innovation Hub.

Platform Design Construction Innovation Hub UK

In the UK, the Construction Innovation Hub brings together expertise from the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), Building Research Establishment (BRE) and the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB). They join forces in order to transform the UK construction industry. With £72 million from UK Research and Innovation’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, the Hub aims to change the way buildings and infrastructure are designed, manufactured, integrated and connected within the built environment. Keith Waller, Programme Director of the Hub, says: “We want to be a catalyst for change. We will drive collaboration to develop, commercialise and promote digital and manufacturing technologies for the construction sector. This way we will help build smarter, greener and more efficient buildings much faster and cheaper than we currently do.”

Change in skills, product standards, capacity and innovation

The plans of the Construction Innovation Hub look ambitious and clear. Upcoming research in the UK should help understand how the industry must change in terms of skills, product standards, capacity and innovation. This will be combined with an academic programme to create security-minded frameworks and rules which will underpin the future digital built environment and grow exports for UK know-how. The Construction Innovation Hub will not be working on its own on this. Waller: “We will work closely with other initiatives as part of the Government’s Transforming Construction challenge programme. Through collaboration across the sector, we can provide a better built environment for future generations.”

Platforms

‘Platform’ seems to be the buzzword around this new initiative. “Amazon is a platform, the iPhone has its own platform and now, of course, there’s ours. Just like the iStore, or Google Play, to get your product out on our platform, there’s certain criteria”. Chuckling, Waller says: “It sounds right, doesn’t it? No, but seriously, what do we mean by ‘Platforms’?” It might be helpful to consider the approach taken in the automotive sector. Modern cars are manufactured and assembled using a platform approach.

Design types, components, criteria, standards

Keith Waller expands on the car platform concept: “All cars have a chassis – a structural frame to which all other components are attached. Different chassis types are required for different car types, although many chassis types are similar for a particular type of car, for instance, a family saloon. The same applies for the car’s components – engines, doors, wheels etcetera. The chassis and individual components all comply with strict design, tolerance, quality and performance criteria. When assembled into the finished product, there’s a warranty. The completed product complies with all required safety and performance criteria, often backed up by testing. Our programme aims to implement a similar approach for buildings.”

Open Call: an invitation

Keith Waller during the Platform Design Open Call in Coventry, 2019.

In 2019, the Hub has been running an ‘Open Call’ designed to engage and encourage businesses and stakeholders. These come from both within and outside the construction industry. Together, they are involved in the largest ever UK government-backed R&D programme in the sector. Last July, the Hub announced their Platform Design Programme through an Open Call at MTC in Coventry. There, the Hub encouraged businesses of all sizes with innovative products or services to apply. Keith Waller explains: “We invest tens of billions in the UK building sector each year. We really should ask ourselves: ‘what are the benefits?’ Not only to the owner or the operator but in a broader sense as well. What are the benefits for all of us? We are trying to make a start with this.”

Read more: A catalyst for Transformation

Kit of parts

Keith Waller says: “In short, the Platform Design Programme will consist of a kit of parts. It’s done by and meant for innovative designers throughout the supply chain. Of course, we should all recognize that we are not there yet. To be able to do this properly, we will set out a direction and get people to agree to it. Furthermore, stakeholders will need support. That’s where we provide a space in order to make a chain.” Successful applicants to the Open Call will get detailed support from manufacturing, performance and digital experts to develop and refine their products, technologies or services. “We will take it step by step, analyzing specifics for small houses, industrial halls, warehouses and buildings with an education or health care purpose”, explains Waller. The platform solution will combine digital, design and manufacturing principles, delivering a high degree of rationalization and integration.

Digital Twinning

Eventually, the Hub will install and widely showcase the selected and developed solutions in a proof of concept building. This will demonstrate how the platform principles of a set of components can be applied across a wide range of UK government projects for vital new buildings like schools, hospitals and prisons. In a sense, this showcase building may be one step following virtual 3D models and digital twins. When talking about the origins of digital twinning in the UK, Keith Waller sees a direct link with Building Information Modelling (BIM): “In their BIM policy, the UK government expressed the wish to record and publish our new buildings and constructions in a Level Of Detail 2 BIM. While it is obviously great to have a certain level of ambition, it’s also immediately clear that you will only get that far with LOD2.”

Read more: Construction Innovation Hub announced creation of industry board

Updated workflow

The next step would not only ‘make it real’. In true fashion of a living lab, the Platform Design Programme will look into the mechanics and functionality of buildings. “Evolving into a digital twin, what you really want to know is what it does. You want to know how it performs, how it interacts with what happens all around it. It should be viewed upon as a running machine.” Besides, Waller recognizes that an updated workflow might also alter the way we value buildings. “Up to now, we have been obsessed with what it costs instead of how it performs. In the process, we might want to change how we measure value. We assess value to it through a multiple number of lenses. We will be helping government by valuing differently: by performance.”

Criteria and standards

“Naturally, there will be standards. Besides that, how we are going to use data is not just about manufacturing. There’s so much more to it, think about carbon usage, ethics”. Waller is aware of the fact that building projects only make up 0.5 per cent of the grand total of the built infrastructure. Waller: “If you want renewable energy to become a success, you just can’t do solar on new buildings alone. It’s something we should reckon with. Although there is a certain logic to initially focus on a new built market, the basic question should be: ‘How do you develop your tools and systems out of the existing infrastructure?”