Millions wasted as construction research 'gathers dust'

Ecobuild conference hears that disconnect between construction research and practice means innovative ideas are being shelved and millions of pounds wasted

Millions of pounds is being wasted because innovative ideas to improve construction methods are being left to 'gather dust on a shelf'.

Some £40m is spent every year on construction research in the UK, yet many of the good ideas that come out of this never make it to site.

The problem, delegates at last week's Ecobuild conference were told, is that money is spent by researchers without a mechanism to inform professionals or take the ideas forward commercially.

Under the current system academics tend to work in isolation, with construction professionals not involved in the study phase. This means the results do not filter down. National research laboratories linked to industry organisations have also largely disappeared or been privatised, leaving a more-piecemeal approach to research practice.

The UK is good at carrying out research, but although we do some translation, there is potential for much more

"There used to be more of a remit to translate research into practice, but this has gone," said Professor Tadj Oreszcyzyn, director of the Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources and director of the RCUK Centre for Energy Epidemiology.

"In the UK we spend 10 times more on research into the shipbuilding industry than we do on construction, even though it the marketplace is not as active as it once was.

"Most of this research takes place in universities, not within industry, and this leaves us facing a great challenge."

One recent construction research project revealed that 40% less heat was lost through brick walls than was previously thought. This came at a time when the government was planning a massive building insulation programme. Such studies have the potential, both to change the way construction is carried out in the future, and to save money.

"It is very important to understand what the realities are," said Professor Oreszcyzyn.

"The UK is good at carrying out research, but although we do some translation, there is potential for much more, particularly if we can work with professional institutions.

"There is value in doing research in many areas, even if there is no direct impact, but I believe in an applied area like the built environment, all research should result in some sort of positive impact."

One of the key problems is the way research is currently funded. Academics must bid for cash and their efforts are then assessed and rated. Future funding depends on getting good ratings.

REF has turned academia into research machines optimised to get good ratings. The system is driven for peer review rather than by practitioners on the ground

Paddy Conaghan, a consultant at Hoare Lea, has for the past 12 months been reading and assessing construction research papers as part of the Research Excellence Framework's (REF) built environment panel. The REF is the new system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions.

Professor Oreszcyzyn said: "Out of 300 papers he assessed, 40 were deemed important to the future construction market, but he felt they were not reaching practice and there was a missed opportunity."

The drive for 'good grades' means opportunities for improvement are being missed.

"REF has turned academia into research machines optimised to get good ratings," said Professor Oreszcyzyn.

"The system is driven for peer review rather than by practitioners on the ground. There is a problem of information overload and we need to find more time to put these findings into practice."

He claimed making impact assessments a bigger percentage of the REF assessment score would encourage academics to work more closely with practitioners and turn ideas into reality.

His views were supported by Dr Jason Green, head of energy at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. He said: "£3billion goes to universities every year and the technologies that will be around in 10 years time will come from UK academic research, but we do not see many collaborations with practitioners."

And Robin Nicholson, senior partner architectural firm, Cullinan Studio, and convenor of the Edge built environment think tank, added: "Knowledge exists, but is not being put into practice. There's a need for better and faster access to research."

We need to fix the broken cycle. There is no point doing research unless it gets to those who can use it

He also blamed a lack of feedback on how reseach findings impact on services.

"The first step is to do post-occaupancy evaluation on all buildings as a matter of course," he said. "There is a lack of culture of feedback and it's very difficult to get data and go on getting it over time. It should be encumbent on all professionals to do this and to publish the results."

Stephen R Hodder MBE, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), added: "Good architecture is about buildings that work for users and there are opportunities for all institutions to collaborate with academia. "We need to fix the broken cycle. There is no point doing research unless it gets to those who can use it."

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