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Maintaining the momentum

Innovation will be crucial for the transformation to zero carbon – so it’s vital that the momentum of cutting-edge thinking continues after the COP26 circus leaves Scotland

Industrial-scale KUKA KR Quantec robotic arm at CSIC’s robotic cell

Sustainability is fast becoming the defining theme in public discourse, and the arrival of COP26 in Glasgow is only helping to elevate its importance within governmental policy agendas. In a few short weeks, we will have the eyes of the world looking at what Scotland is doing to tackle climate change.

What’s most important, however, is the momentum for change that COP26 will create – and the legacy that it will leave behind. November’s event is going to be one of the most high-profile global summits we have ever seen on our doorstep, but for most industries and organisations, the real challenge lies in sustaining that momentum. We must look beyond COP26 and treat it as a starting point for a longer-term journey to reaching zero carbon.

COP26 matters for the construction sector

The built environment is responsible for as much as 47% of UK carbon emissions and, therefore, the sector has a major role to play in reducing the impact of climate change. For construction companies, COP26 is an opportunity to showcase what is already being done and also what’s possible, with skills, expertise, innovative techniques, and sustainable materials that could be integral to the future of the sector.

Working together, we have to raise awareness and increase the adoption of zero carbon alternatives, and it is incumbent on us all to strive for a more sustainable future. There are cutting-edge developments emerging all over the construction industry with smart buildings becoming the norm. From sensor-led heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems to intelligent monitoring tools and even the requirement for electric vehicle charging points, there are a range of electrical innovations becoming more mainstream.

Recognising the opportunity

A member of Team ESTEEM using the UK’s only vacuum press of its kind at the CSIC

To accelerate transformation, we need a step change in culture. Those in leadership roles must recognise that innovation and change can be a business opportunity rather than a challenge, and the more that people adopt and invest in new techniques and materials the lesser the risk involved.

That said, we also cannot ignore the fact that our sector is largely made up of SMEs. So alternatives need to be accessible, understandable, and affordable with greater emphasis on knowledge sharing, best practice guides and creating resources to support a sector-wide transition.

Transitioning to low carbon

The first two-storey modular home manufactured from Scottish mass timber

Decarbonisation is one of the biggest factors we must contend with in Scotland, in terms of both new and existing buildings. There will need to be a significant cultural shift to embrace new technology and heating systems. Energy from renewable sources is one part of that, with a growing demand for wind, wave, and solar power both on a national scale and within individual homes or communities.

Of Scotland’s 2.45 million homes, only around 278,000 currently use a renewable or low emissions heating system. To that end, we are also likely to see more households utilising heat pumps and heat recovery networks, for instance.

With that will come an additional need for skills and associated supply chains. However, on the other hand, we also need to think about building efficiency in its entirety – alternatives can only go so far if a building is losing heat through gaps or cracks.

CSIC is currently supporting team ESTEEM – a group of students participating in the Solar Decathlon Middle East – to build an innovative house of the future powered exclusively with solar energy. Powered by photovoltaic panels, the house also showcases a range of new technologies including AI integration and intelligent cooling solutions.

Future-proofing the workforce

While there are endless opportunities for innovation and new ways of working, the transition to zero carbon will ultimately be underpinned by the strength of our skills and talent.

At the moment, the construction sector is crying out for experts who can be at the forefront of new sustainable building design and retrofit projects.

A recent report by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) suggested around 22,500 new roles will need to be created by 2028 to achieve the Scottish Government’s carbon targets, reflecting the growing demand for new green skills and increased innovation.

As a sector, we are used to sticking to one trade or specialism, but perhaps moving forward we need to place more emphasis on what we call ‘meta skills’ – focusing on developing adaptability, collaboration, communication and critical thinking among others. With greater emphasis on this type of learning, we can support the development of a future workforce ready to embrace change and champion innovation across any of the key disciplines in the sector.

Digital transformation

New technology is another important piece of the puzzle, and a major disruptor for the industry to wrap our heads around that could support the transition to zero carbon, as well as boosting productivity and efficiency.

There are an infinite number of opportunities that technology could unlock for the construction sector, whether that be in the design stage, to aid construction, or in terms of smart technology embedded into a building.

Strong connectivity will be critical in laying the foundations for greater use of all types of digital tools and technology, from AI and robotics to intelligent building management systems. The roll-out of 5G could provide a much-needed boost in that respect, transforming accessibility on building sites and enabling the use of data and digital tools.

Virtual reality tech at the CSIC

Recently CSIC was involved in a project to explore remote inspections of construction sites, comparing the efficiency and quality as part of a range of trials for the Scottish Government’s Building Standards Division. In this case, the focus was also on integrating accessible and cost-effective options such as smart phones and tablets, rather than using VR headsets or similar complex hardware.

At the opposite end of the scale, 5G could see sites adopting the use of autonomous vehicles or holographic building visualisation tools, as well as a range of real-time monitoring capabilities that remove the need for site managers and building control officers to be present on site – saving on emissions from travel, among other benefits.

Nothing changes if nothing changes

This saying couldn’t be more relevant for the construction sector and our approach to zero carbon. To reach the Scottish Government’s carbon targets, we need a collaborative approach to adopting alternatives.

The sector has a real opportunity to do things differently and pave the way for a more sustainable built environment for the benefit of everyone in Scotland.


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