Making the zero-carbon standard home: understanding project-firm innovation in UK house building

Lead Research Organisation: University of Reading
Department Name: Built Enviroment


The proposed research explores the significant challenge which the carbon reduction agenda poses for UK house builders. Focusing on the development of new products and processes at the project level and their diffusion across a large multi-regional firm we will ask key research questions that include: How can construction firms take advantage of project-level innovations? How can they meet the challenges which progressive carbon reduction targets currently pose? How do these innovations travel across large, complex firms? And how do standards shape innovations and how do innovations feed into ongoing changes in standard practice? The proposed research explores these questions by examining the development, uptake and diffusion of technical innovations from Hanham Hall, an experimental housing development which Barratt Developments has used to address the 2016 requirement that all new homes meet a zero-carbon standard. Barratt Developments is one of the largest house builders in the UK. The house builder has four brands and had an average of around 400 active sites at any one time across 25 divisions.

The question of how specific technical innovations from Hanham Hall are being diffused and stabilised across Barratt Developments addresses some of the core challenges for the mainstreaming of zero-carbon standard buildings. While many scholars highlight the challenges of cross-project learning and the diffusion of innovations, little empirical or theoretical work has been done on the 'anchoring of innovations' at the firm-level. Similarly, little work has been done on the travel of innovations across projects within a large, multi-regional firm. This problem is especially pressing when one takes into account the ambitious upcoming carbon reduction targets and the largely organisational nature of the challenge. As a number of observers have noted, the sector knows how to build low-carbon buildings on experimental developments; what it does not know how to do is to incorporate that know-how into standard practice.

The research questions are informed by the application of actor-network theory and neo-institutionalism to the study of key technical innovations at Hanham Hall across Barratt Developments:

(1) to identify and explain the development of a number of key product and process innovations at Hanham Hall in response to carbon reduction requirements;

(2) to examine the impact of those innovations on firm-level practices (including supply chains, procurement, internal management systems, business models, policies and strategies);

(3) to follow the introduction of those innovations into other Barratt Developments housing projects and to document similarities and differences in project-level accommodation to those elements;

(4) to use this analysis to theorise processes of innovation, diffusion and stabilisation/institutionalisation (in firm-level strategies, systems and practices) within large, project-based firms; and,

(5) to contrast the findings produced by the deployment of neo-institutionalism and actor-network theory in the study of a single complex empirical case.

The focal case study research will draw upon the analysis of documents, relevant artefacts, in-depth interviews and observations. The analysis of these sources will allow the team to trace the associations and movement of people and objects across multiple Barratt Development sites.

Planned Impact

(1) Barratt Developments and other project stakeholders including members of Barratt's extensive supply chains and partner local authorities and housing associations.

(2) The construction industry through the project's 'pathways to impact' partners (see Statements of Support). The new build housing sector 'pathways to impact' partners are the National House Building Council Foundation (the NHBC is the largest home warranty provider in England and Wales, accounting for 80% of all new homes, and has 18,000 house builders and developers on its Register), the Home Builders Federation (whose membership delivers over 80% of all new homes of all new homes in England and Wales) and the Zero Carbon Hub (which advises the UK Government on the specification of the zero-carbon standard). The broader construction industry 'pathways to impact' partners are Constructing Excellence (the largest cross-construction sector member-led organisation that supports continuous improvement in industry performance and was established in response to the UK Government's Latham and Egan industry reform initiatives) and the Structural Timber Association (the focal trade association of structural timber products and systems in the UK with over 200 members).

(3) The wider community (through engagement with key stakeholders such as the BIS, DECC, Cabinet Office Efficiency and Reform Group, CLG, and the UK Green Building Council).

COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT: The research team will develop a regularly updated stakeholder analysis and engagement strategy, to be developed in consultation with industry and pathways to impact partners (see above). The strategy will begin with targeted communications and events for the project 'impact partners'. A strategy for reaching the wider community will be developed in collaboration with the same 'impact partners. This will include: (1) a project website, (2) press releases, (3) industry reports for public dissemination (to be distributed through the project website, university channels and impact partners' dissemination channels, including their own publications and websites), and (4) an industry workshop hosted by the Zero Carbon Hub in London for policy-makers and practitioners. The dissemination for the housing development beneficiaries will be run through the NHBC Foundation, Home Builders Federation, Zero Carbon Hub; broader construction and construction product suppliers through the Structural Timber Association and Constructing Excellence.

COLLABORATION AND CO-PRODUCTION: Collaboration with practitioners is an integral part of the research methodology adopted within the proposed study and the research partners have been active participants in the development of all aspects of the proposal. During the empirical work, the collaboration between the research team and the research collaborators will provide an invaluable way of 'road-testing' the way in which the new theory and practice-based developments from the project can be effectively communicated to other stakeholders. This will form a vital first step on the pathway to impact.


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Description 1. Experimental leeway process model

Research led to an enhanced understanding of the uptake of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) across multiple divisions and their implications for firm level innovation strategies. Innovation was characterised as a movement through successive diffusion phases, including: scanning alternatives, operational alignment, parallel pilotings and developing to maturity. Each of these varies with the degree of 'experimental leeway' such as extending project timescales, increasing budgets, and facilitating the support of external expertise. In each of these phases, house-builders not only assessed the feasibility of the MMC in question. The analysis highlighted how the practicalities of implementing MMCs across divisions and associated designs and build programs loop back into firm level trajectories.

2. Challenges to the adoption of modern methods of construction

The research has produced a better understanding of the challenges faced by house-builders in the adoption of MMCs. The analysis revealed that the introduction of MMCs is not a simple 'plug-in' substitution of one technical solution for another; but rather the MMC solution is an emergent outcome of negotiation between project participants' interests, and the development of complementary technical and process innovations. Examples include the redesign of scaffolding, changes in the jurisdictions of and interaction between trades, the formation of new warranty standards and inspection regimes, and the redistribution of risk and responsibility between supply chain partners. The research thus highlights the multiple interdependent product and process innovations associated with the uptake of MMCs.

3. ANT contribution-insights

The ANT stream of the project contributes to innovation studies by revealing the importance of multiplicity to the upscaling of technological innovations: modern methods of construction were revealed to concurrently be projects, processes and products. This finding contributes by explaining how misunderstandings around the natures of innovations, create significant barriers between the multiple firms and actors involved in successfully upscaling innovations. The research also contributes to the development of ANT by theorizing the role of human affects and emotions (e.g. pride, confidence) in the adoption of innovations. Affective enrolment is particularly important in more temporary project-based innovation contexts, like house-building, where formal innovation management controls, are considerably more difficult to implement and maintain.

4. NI contribution/insights

A key theoretical contribution of this research lies in the development of an analytic framework to analyse the effect of culture on innovation at the project and firm levels. The analysis highlighted the impact on four types of rules: temporal, spatial, jurisdictional and governance on the innovation process. The research documented the rules informing the dominant way of working. It also explored how the introduction of MMC rendered some of these rules problematic and how new rules were developed. Examples include issues such as the design of scaffolding, the physical erection of the structure, the programming of follow on trades and certification criteria. In each case, rules, resulting from protracted negotiation on-site, captured and fixed process innovations. Commercial and physical site specific considerations also led to variations in the implementation of MMCs.
Exploitation Route The findings offer house-building practitioners an evidence-based process model and MMC innovation roadmap (Achievement 1 above) to assist large and small house-builders to: (a) meet successfully that organisational challenges of the adoption of MMC (Achievement 2 above), and (b) the upscaling of MMC solutions across (in the case of large house-builders), complex, multidivisional organisations (Achievement 3 and 4 above). The models and roadmap are illustrated with real-world case study examples. The findings will be taken forward by the industrial partners and their broader supply chains, as well as continued engagement with the projects 'pathway to impact' partners.

The research team is in the process of producing a set of journal papers that will be of interest to three academic communities: (a) construction innovation community - the findings will challenge scholars to elevate the dominant technologically-deterministic view of innovation found in much of the construction discipline to a socio-technical, recursive conceptualisation, (b) actor-network theory community - the findings will benefit academics interested in the use and development of ANT, and related approaches, to the built environment, and (c) organisational studies - the findings will engage scholars with an interest on innovation, standardisation and project-based firms, in particular the role of micro-dynamics in institutional change.
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Construction,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description DIRECT IMPACT OF FINDINGS FOR THE PROJECT INDUSTRIAL PARTNERS House builder project industrial partner. The project findings have had the following impact: (a) the learning from the case study housing development Installation and Design Sandpits and on-site problem-solving led to an estimated five day saving from a total programme schedule of 28 weeks; (b) supply chain capacity building with the timber-frame manufacturer / installer and the architect with respect to the advantages and issues with current design of timber-frame, with installation and follow-on trades; and, (c) the development of strategy for future implementation of timber-frame in housing developments. Timber frame designer / manufacturer / installer. The project findings have had the following impact: (a) the learning from the case study housing development led directly to a revision of the design of the company's timber-frame in respect to service batten tolerances and the structural make up of panel. The new panels are in production; (b) all designers, factory floor and installers have develop new knowledge and practices with respect to the new panel make up; (c) the revised design of the panels has helped to eliminate some of the problems experienced in the case study housing development on subsequent projects that the company has been engaged with. Impact on wider new house-builder practitioners Integrated supply chain (ISC) management for timber-frame. The project findings have had the following impact: (a) an innovation roadmap for supply chain integration for timber-frame housing from fragmented to fully integrated ISCs through the complete project lifecycle (business case, design, manufacture, installation and build-out); (b) the generic overall savings from improved ISC set out in the innovation roadmap (based on the experience of the case study housing development) are estimated to be 2.5% saving in time and 2% saving in cost for a partially ISC compared to a fragmented supply chain, and 4.5% saving in time and 3.75% in cost for a fully ISC; and (c) a handbook to support the innovation roadmap which provides supply chain partners with key integration targets and deliverables for each phase, fully illustrated with examples from the case study development.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Construction,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology
Impact Types Societal,Economic