Chris Shaw: Building a brighter future through innovation

Just yesterday, I had the pleasure of addressing a huge room full of Scottish construction professionals.

Chris Shaw of Urban Splash says he's 'a little bit jealous' of the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre's new facility. Picture: Andy Buchanan

But this wasn’t any old room – it was Construction Scotland Innovation Centre’s new Innovation Factory, a massive workshop which is home to a whole bunch of state-of-the-art construction and manufacturing equipment that anyone in the construction industry can use.

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It’s unlike anything else in the UK, so as an Englishman passionate about innovation in construction, I’m a little bit jealous. I’d been invited north of the Border by the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre to talk at the launch of their Innovation Factory about my experiences with Urban Splash, the regeneration company I work for in Manchester on developments around England.

The Innovation Factory is open to everyone in the construction sector. Picture: Contributed

Urban Splash was set up by two friends, architect Jonathan Falkingham MBE and entrepreneur Tom Bloxham MBE, back in 1993. At the time they had no grand plans other than wanting to bring all the many empty buildings that were lying around in Liverpool and Manchester back into use.

What really set Urban Splash apart from other developers was that it based its investment decisions on what it thought would be future trends, rather than responding to historic ones. This was a very unusual approach in an industry which is traditionally very conservative and cautious.

When we started developing in city centres, people thought nobody would want to live in Manchester or Liverpool city centre. But our approach was a success; Urban Splash has undertaken more than 60 regeneration projects, invested over a billion pounds in regeneration and created over 5,000 new homes, two million sq ft of work space, and thousands of jobs.

The Innovation Factory is open to everyone in the construction sector. Picture: Contributed

Being bold and innovative is where we share many similarities with the Innovation Centre team. They are passionate about getting Scottish construction businesses to look to the future and do things better. In the Innovation Factory, they have an amazing facility that’s open to anyone who wants to use it to prototype and develop new products, processes, systems and solutions. 

A particular area of focus for CSIC since it launched has been offsite manufacturing. I believe that offsite is a game-changer when it comes to tackling the current housing shortage. Scotland alone needs to deliver 50,000 new affordable homes and an estimated 75,000 private homes over the next few years. Offsite fabrication and modularisation can really speed up housebuilding, because while the building components are being manufactured in a factory, onsite preparation can be going on at the same time. Using a controlled offsite environment can reduce the impact of adverse weather conditions on the project.

Many people think modular housing means that we’ll soon all be living in bland identikit shoeboxes. However, with manufacturers taking a 21st century approach to mass customisation, as the car industry has, nothing could be further from the truth. This is one area we are really investing in at Urban Splash. Our “House” project aims to combine the cost benefits of modular construction with the flexibility offered by architect-designed properties. Customers have the power to design and determine the layout of their home, which is then made in a factory, and transported as a pre-assembled module to site where it is craned into position.

CSIC has also been supporting a consortium of Scotland’s offsite manufacturers for some time, which is making real progress in terms of allowing these businesses to collaborate and improve Scotland’s offsite proposition.

Embracing offsite is just one of the many ways CSIC can help your organisation. So if you’re in the UK and you’re involved in construction, come and see the amazing Innovation Factory. I can’t tell you how much the founders of Urban Splash wish there had been a facility like this back in the 1990s. But it’s here now – so use it.

• Chris Shaw, associate development director of regeneration company Urban Splash