How Materials, Not IT, Are Disrupting The Construction Industry

We’ve been having some lively debate about whether there are any more industries for IT to disrupt – after all there are only a limited number of things you can do online. The counter argument is that boundaries between the virtual and real worlds are blurring, and that as this happens IT will become ever more pervasive.

But a recent BusinessWeek article, Think the Internet Leads to Growth? Think Again, by Charles Kenny seems to have the wires buzzing with discussion about whether the IT revolution has had any economic impact, other than simply shifting economic activity and jobs from disrupted sectors to the IT sector?

The Internet has changed the economy and will continue to change it. Some industries—not least print media, booksellers, and broadcast TV—will continue to see dramatic upheaval. But the biggest impact of the technology has been as a more addictive form of entertainment than watching Friends reruns or talking to real friends in real life. If we’ve learned anything over the past 10 years, it’s that there’s no simple Web-based solution to an economy in the productivity doldrums.

So here’s an interesting game to play – can you think of an industry that is resistant to new technology? Most industries have changed beyond belief, either enthusiastically embracing IT or withering away. My latest car is a computer based entertainment system attached to a drive chain with some armchairs perched on top, and even the local farmers are using GPS.

One of the few things that has been done in exactly the same way since the 1970’s is house building. While houses are getting smarter with home automation and intelligent thermostats, but the basic structure and the internal utilities are still based on 1950s technologies and 1970’s working practices – perhaps the only change is that cigarette breaks have been replaced by Facebook on mobile phones as the biggest productivity killer.

In fact house building has been going backwards. As one colleague commented “Pity the House Building Industry hasn’t followed the same path (as the car industry).  Today’s new homes are smaller, have a reduced specification and a far poorer build quality than they did 50 years ago.  Just imagine what the cars of today would be like if it had been left to the big house building companies?”

The car of the future - as imagined by the construction industry!

The car of the future – as imagined by the construction industry!

If that’s not an industry in need of disruption, then it is hard to imagine what is. Target locked and loaded, how do we proceed?

I spent the last year taking a close look at the building industry, working with people whose vast experience in construction and property development matched my own in emerging technologies, and the result is Kirkstyles.

Our vision is to offer a complete solution combining modular, ultra efficient building systems with domestic energy harvesting and management systems. With energy efficient heating, cooling and lighting we believe that we can provide the fastest, lowest cost solution to enable carbon negative construction.

The challenge we have is one of materials and cost. Standard timber and brick construction is relatively cheap and doesn’t require too many special skills, but it is also labour intensive and results in homes that have very poor thermal efficiency. Of course this can be addressed, cavity walls and loft insulation for example, and carbon footprints can be reduced by the use of renewables such as solar, wind and heat pumps, but these efficiency measures are inevitably bolted on the to the building system rather than being integrated into the system from the initial design. A further complication is that to make a house truly net zero carbon, i.e. over 365 days you will be a net exporter of energy, can cost a phenomenal amount. Even with government incentives such as the Green Deal the economics look shaky.

Our solution was to take a range of modern methods of construction such as integrated concrete formwork and sustainable reusable partitions and combine them with cutting edge materials technology for water and space heating, and of course a healthy dose of IT to control the whole system. Whereas there are plenty of companies selling green build components, by integrating these into a build system, we are able to leverage significant improvements in both construction time and energy efficiency

Polymer finishes can be indistinguishable from solid stone

Polymer finishes can be indistinguishable from solid stone

So if we can build a net zero carbon house for the price of a standard one what’s the catch? Usually it’s the appearance, no one wants to live in a concrete box and I certainly don’t want people building them in the village where I live. Fortunately we have a solution, a polymer based spray on rendering system that allows us to create a finish that blends with the local environment, be it granite, sandstone or brick.

We’ll be rolling this out over the summer, as well as breaking ground on what we expect to be the UK’s first affordable carbon negative house.

My feeling is that we are at the beginning a revolution in the way we build, and with the technologies I can see in the pipeline our current system is going to be vastly improved over the coming years. In the meantime if you have any suitable technologies we may have missed, which can help make sustainable affordable housing a reality, not just in Europe but across the word, get in touch!



Comments 2

    1. Post

      Low U value windows are commercially available, as are the closers, so we source the most appropriate technology rather than reinventing it.

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