Collaboration, transparency and innovation are critical enablers for a more sustainable built environment. Every quarter, UKGBC convenes its innovative start-up members with representatives from different sub-sectors for its 
Innovative Start-Up Forum. Alongside peer-to-peer networking, discussions focus on sustainability challenges being faced by each sub-sector, how they engage with start-ups and innovators, and the most effective methods of collaboration.

On 27th September 2022, UKGBC’s Innovative Start-Up members were joined by three of our contractor members, and key learnings from this discussion are detailed in this deep dive below. The discussion ranged from the importance of having proven case studies of success, to identifying and working with relevant stakeholders to mitigate risks, and we heard many stories of successful collaboration.

Our panellists were:

  • Glen Rust, R&D Engineering Lead, Laing O’Rourke
  • Ian Fuller, Head of Sustainability, ISG
  • Claire Murray, Sustainability Manager, Multiplex Construction Europe Ltd.

The conversation was chaired by Jade Cohen, CPO and Co-Founder of Qualis Flow and member of the UKGBC Innovative Start-Up Forum Advisory Group. Questions came from a variety of our Innovative Start-Up members in attendance. Gilbert Lennox-King, Founder & CEO of Construction Carbon, another member of the UKGBC Innovative Start-Up Forum’s Advisory Group, reflects on some of the key discussion points:

Where do you currently look for innovative solutions from start-ups or small businesses?

There was consensus amongst the panellists that attending events and participating in collaborative networks across the industry are a great way to discover and share solutions. Large organisations in particular find it challenging to pinpoint where multiple solutions could be implemented together to maximise impact. The panellists also stressed the importance of such solutions being able to demonstrate success and impact, often through case studies.

Glen noted that the innovations that Laing O’Rourke has embedded or implemented successfully have come both from proactively seeking solutions to current challenges the organisation aces, and through naturally discovering them due to strong ties with the industry and academia.

Ian noted that direct reach-outs by innovators is a common, but time intensive, approach for both sides. He stressed the import role that orgasations such as UKGBC play in streamlining this process – centralising and sharing information, making connections, and getting the right people in the room.

What are the biggest challenges that you are facing that are slowing your decarbonisation journey?

Ian noted that the biggest challenge for carbon, in his opinion, is the scaling of solution implementation from a single project to the entire business. But that it’s also about prioritisation, materiality, and how many changes one organisation can realistically tackle at once. The availability of data further slows down the decision-making process, especially when there are multiple different solutions or innovations available to solve a different piece of the puzzle.

Glen added that there is a difference in maturity between the new solutions that have come out of academia, and the scale of implementation required on a large project. On large construction projects there needs to be certainty at the beginning of the process, even if a technology won’t be implemented for a couple of years. This requires flexibility in planning, both practically and financially, for small start-ups. Furthermore, someone has to pay for the initial investment in a solution or innovation, even when the return could be large it often comes long down the line. The commercial reality of construction – with such tight margins – can be a barrier to this.

Is there anything that start-ups can do to overcome the perceived need for case studies, if one does not exist yet as the solution is so new?

Requiring start-ups to have case studies demonstrating their solution’s success can be challenging and this is not always possible for new organisations to demonstrate. But from the other side, it’s difficult to create a business case for the adoption of new innovations if you cannot demonstrate a quantified value or benefit yet.

Ian noted that it’s about finding the right environments to implement your solution, which is suitable to your stage of development. ISG works with lots of different clients that want to use innovative solutions, and some are more open to early-stage innovations than others. To do early stage innovations you need all project stakeholders to be in alignment and supportive. There is also the risk that if something hasn’t been done before, it might not work as expected. For contractors, there are some cases where that risk just cannot taken. Finding experimental environments and making the most of them is important.

Claire and Glen reiterated this, and emphasised that the risk element of using an innovation or solution can be difficult to manage. If all project stakeholders are in alignment then that risk can be shared and not fall solely on the contractor. Therefore, as start-ups, you shouldn’t just engage with the contractor but all members of the project team to get buy-in.

Ian and Glen also stressed the importance of start-ups being honest about where they are in their development journey, and where their limitations might lie, providing appropriate evidence around claims made.

Do you have any examples of where you’ve identified and deployed an innovation that worked well, and what made that process successful for you?

Claire highlighted Multiplex’s work with Qflow, and how this relationship has been a learning curve for both parties in terms of risk, contracts and pricing. There was a level of “leaping into the unknown” when it came to deploying this new innovation, which was a journey for some of the project directors. Jade agreed that there is success in the learnings and that it’s about having stakeholders involved at the right points and getting the contractual mechanisms right at the start of the project.

Glen highlighted Laing O’Rourke’s relationships with industry and academic partners in deploying innovative cement-free geopolymer concrete. Having a client that wanted a cement-free building was crucial to tie research and development together and this meant that they wouldn’t have to store the product for a couple of years which is sometimes the case with new innovations.

Ian added it is easier to deploy material innovations that directly replace an existing product, albeit often these are less innovative and less likely to significantly move the needle.

How are the panellists dealing with complexity around ESG reporting?

It was agreed that the complex and inconsistent landscape of regulation, reporting, and voluntary requirements is increasingly adding difficulty and time to project processes. Regulations and standards encouraging consistency around EPDs and and carbon reporting process, in particular, would save a lot of time and effort. Ian highlighted that complex supply chains in construction further complicate data gathering, purely because of the large number of organisations that are involved, all needing to supply data at different times and in different formats.

What are some of the biggest sustainability challenges you are facing at the moment?

They key challenges that our panellists cited were:

  • Data collection and reporting, particularly across large supply chains.
  • Ensuring aspects of sustainability outside of carbon are not side-lined, for example biodiversity and waste management. Tying this all together holistically.
  • Understanding the links between circularity and low carbon materials, including looking at the locality of materials and opportunities to create local employment.
  • Prioritising which challenges to tackle first and where to deploy an organisation’s limited resources.
  • Understanding how the whole built environment deals with the cataloguing, reporting, finding, distributing, quality assurance and testing of reused materials.

Are your clients asking you to propose solutions that reduce emissions, and to what extent are you able to make changes?

Claire mentioned that there has been a change in what clients are asking for – embodied carbon is now a high priority alongside operational, as well as a drive to apply circular economy principles. In terms of ability to change design aspects, it fully depends on where in the process the client asks those questions. If it’s early enough to make significant changes then those conversations will be had with the architects and engineers, however, if they are further down the line then it’s more difficult to implement changes because the risk hasn’t been fully factored in.

According to Ian, there is a real push in the public sector for low carbon solutions, which is creating environments where they’re prepared to take on those innovations. In the private sector there is also clear motivation around net zero on projects, but the timing of when questions get asked around this, and the capacity to drive change through innovation after that is a barrier.

How do tier 1 contractors get involved with optimisation for operational carbon of the build assets?

Ian noted  that it depends on the sector. There’s an opportunity for collaboration between consultants, designers, contractors, and the people who are responsible for operating the building that could solve a lot of operational carbon problems, but that these stakeholders don’t get together at the right time to sort this out.

Claire pointed out that there is also a lag between when we have useful operational data, and the contractors ability to improve it. Glen agreed that there’s a lot of thinking about whole life carbon with operational energy, but a gap between collecting data and the decision-making points. All the panellists agreed contractors contributing to optimising operational carbon is likely going to become more commonplace in the future.

In conclusion, there was clear appetite amongst our contractors to try out new innovations that address the many sustainability challenges they face, and towards collaborating with the start-up community as a step towards this.

Developing case studies, and identifying and working with relevant stakeholders to mitigate risks, were identified as important steps for start-ups looking to engage with contractors. And there was an agreement that UKGBC plays a crucial role in fostering this collaboration.

UKGBC is continuing to run our Innovative Start-Up Forums throughout 2023, if you are interested in finding out more about these and UKGBC’s wider work on Solutions & Innovation, please get in touch.