A History of Construction

The first builders …

After learning how to hunt and gather, the next lesson for early homo sapiens must have been how to build shelters using nothing more than bent branches and animal hides.

Since then we have also learnt how to use stone and brick; glass and steel; and now perhaps some plastics as well. Glacially slow progress over several millennia, especially when compared to other industries.

Innovations already achieved …

And yet, in other ways, innovation has taken place on an almost daily basis. Whether your house is Georgian, Victorian, 1930s or any decade since, while its appearance is largely driven by changing taste, some of the major changes are driven by innovation, these include:

Faster construction – house building has already been industrialised; lean thinking has been applied to it to take out the waste; erection time has been cut to a few days. In other parts of the construction industry where there is repetition, such as IKEA, big improvements in speed have been achieved.

Environmental improvements – these have been driven by legislation, financial self-interest, and the need to cut carbon. Over the last decade, talk of energy reduction, BREEAM and sustainable materials has gone from fringe to mainstream. But we still need to do much more and much more effectively.

BIM – with Revit, architecture finally makes good use of computers. Architects have always been able to think in 3D, now CAD has caught up. This software enables all the designers to coordinate one CAD model.

Curves – while faster computers enable better coordination, they also enable more complexity. Without CAD, the Gherkin and Aquatics Centre could not have been drawn.

Looking to the future …

During the quiet times of the recession I spent time thinking about how we could radically improve the industry. Here are my conclusions:

Housing and IKEA etc. – they are sorted, they have already innovated and are highly efficient.

Gherkin and Aquatics Centre etc. – there will always be special buildings where efficiency is not uppermost. Thinking how to do these more efficiently is not a priority.

All other buildings (which is quite a big list!) – this is where we need to put our effort; think about designing to enable accurate off-site prefabrication and fast on-site assembly; and think about designing mass-produced building shells that can be customised to suit context and use.

This is exactly what we did on a project for the Royal United Hospital and as a result achieved 15% cost saving and 30% time reduction. At the opening Dr Peter Hansford, the Government’s Chief Construction Adviser said, “This is the start of a new age in the UK construction industry”.


The project has won two CE awards – for Innovation and Value. It is also being put forward as a Cabinet Office Trial Project for Construction 2025.

John Rich is a Partner at SRA Architects in Bath.

John Rich 

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