Looking to the future can be a daunting thing, both personally and as a business. With the un-certainty surrounding Brexit looming over every industry within the UK, as well as Climate Change concerns reaching new levels of urgency world-wide, the future becomes even more of an unknown entity. However, the construction sector is an integral clog in the UK’s industrial wheel; over 2.3 million of us work within it. Therefore, it is an enterprise that is able to have some affect on whatever daunting futures we worry about. Be it on a large scale, like slowing global warming, or a small scale, by developing homes for a handful of those in need, we suggest that construction has the ability to build a better future.   

One particular project that substantiates the promising potential of building and design, is the BRE and Loughborough University collaboration that has led to the development of dementia-friendly homes. According to the project, families collectively pay around £18bn a year in dementia costs for their loved ones. Although awareness for the disease has grown thanks to recent campaigns like Share the Orange, it remains an illness without a cure and affects around 850,000 people across the UK. However, while many age-related health issues can be aided with hospices and retirement homes, diseases like Alzheimers are often worsened when a patient is moved somewhere new. BRE claims that, in order to avoid further disorientation and confusion, up to 80% of dementia sufferers continue to live in their own homes.

Therefore, the Building Research Establishment (BRE) developed a project aimed at demonstrating the possibilities of designing and building homes to improve the quality of life for dementia sufferers. Assisted by Loughborough University, BRE focused on a number of areas that take little time and minimal effort to change, but combined can create a much safer and more comfortable environment. For example, BRE lists ideas such as better insulation to improve warmth, suitable location of appliances to avoid confusion and wider doorsets to allow greater mobility. They have also recognised findings by the Alzheimer’s Society, that states an increase of natural lighting helps those with dementia to stay alert during the day and thus sleep better at night, while noise reduction features can often lower stress levels. Most importantly, the dementia-friendly homes project is also informing homeowners and landlords about how they can adapt their own houses and therefore transform the sufferer’s familiar surroundings into a comfortable environment for many more years.

This research, as well as the action that will hopefully follow on from it, demonstrates the benefits that construction can offer. However, while dementia-friendly homes mainly provide support to the older generation, other projects look to assist the younger population. Designing better schools has always been a governmental concern, yet with the failures of ambitious projects like BSF (Building Schools for the Future), it is an issue they have yet to fully and successfully tackle. Nevertheless, we suggest education must look to the construction industry to build a better environment for learning. Research has shown that 64 million European children spend more time at school than they do anywhere else (apart from their own home). These children spend approximately 200 days each year in their primary schools and therefore it seems impossible to argue against these institutes needing plenty of upkeep and embracing a building design aimed at cultivating a positive, educational environment.

A custom designed pre-school building by Scotts of Thrapston

In fact, numerous studies have proven that children do better surrounded by architecture intended to nurture learning. The University of Salford claims that there is ‘clear evidence that well-designed primary schools can substantially boost children’s academic performance in reading, writing, and math’. Their study, named HEAD project, found that ‘differences in the physical characteristics of classrooms explained 16% of the variation in learning progress over a year for the 3,766 students included in the study.’ In other words, a better classroom design leads to a better performance from the students within it. Rowan Moore, architecture critic, adds to this argument and claims that, while buildings ‘can’t get children through GCSEs’ they ‘can make a huge difference to teachers’ abilities to bring such things about’. Just as BRE’s dementia-friendly homes will not cure the illnesses of their residents, a well-designed primary school cannot improve intelligence or directly raise exam results. However, both structural designs may improve the livelihoods of those that spend the most time within them.

When we look to the future, we can see that construction has the power to impact a large span of people across a local community. How about, then, on a more world-wide scale? Shockingly, buildings and construction were once allegedly responsible for 40% of global carbon emissions. Similar research claims energy used in construction, combined with the further powering of finished sites, was previously to blame for as much as half of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, we are the first country to introduce a legal framework aimed at tackling climate change and with it, construction is making steps to improve its carbon footprint. Zero-energy buildings and net positive energy buildings are the future, according to experts. These consist of those structures that produce as much renewable energy as they consume over the course of a year, or in the case of net-positive buildings, they go one better and produce more energy than they consume. These could therefore become an essential part of the fight against climate change and the steps taken to get there are by no means extreme, e.g. just by implementing solar panels and intentionally reducing unnecessary energy consumption, a structure gets much closer to becoming zero-energy.

Experts also claim that this move to energy efficient buildings is not only a positive for the planet, but for businesses too. Financially, it is a wise investment to follow a sustainable design, as the market is developing to the point that transparency within a build is a necessity. Furthermore, it is now possible to expose the exact sustainability of a company’s construction process and final product. Using BIM technology, data is transformed into LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) results, making it simple and easy to analyse where a build can make meaningful improvements and thus deliver a sound, energy efficient structure. This type of technology, along with zero-energy and net-positive buildings, provides an exciting opportunity for construction to make progressive steps within the world and the issue of Climate Change. However, regardless of whether brands and businesses get on board with these opporunities, the construction industry will inevtiably have to adapt. This will either be in creating green building designs to help slow global warming, or conversely, as a reaction to climate change developments such as flooding, storms and dramatic temperature changes.

The world as we know it is adapting, changing and developing at a staggering rate. Nevertheless, the future does not have to be as daunting as we make it out to be. BRE’s dementia-friendly home project is an inspiring use of design to improve the quality of life for a large collection of society, while research into the connection between architecture and children’s learning demonstrates an exciting potential for building and education combined. Finally, the positive actions around the UK and numerous construction companies proves the monumental difference the industry can make for years to come. As businesses, small, large or global, it is our duty to see that this potential future for construction becomes a reality.