Dr Robert Hairstans: We’re building something new for construction by working together

Dr Robert Hairstans, Associate Professor in Edinburgh Napier University's School of Engineering and the Built Environment
Dr Robert Hairstans, Associate Professor in Edinburgh Napier University's School of Engineering and the Built Environment
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A NEW way of thinking is needed if we are to attract our top ­talent to the construction sector and the ­challenges of shaping our built ­environment.

The best and brightest are not ­queuing up to earn a living in the cold, damp, miserable workplaces of ­popular imagination.

Adversarial by structure, overly complicated by design and flawed on delivery – ‘snagging’ as it is universally known in the sector; the image is a turn-off to aspiring engineers, architects and construction professionals.

Let’s focus instead on the type of place where people want to work. Somewhere clean, safe, collaborative, diverse and multicultural, that has people who are forward thinking and ­unafraid to innovate. A place where entrepreneurship is encouraged and there is a sense of strong collective leadership doing the right thing to ensure we and future generations don’t consume too much energy and produce excessive waste.

At Edinburgh Napier University, we have created a Built Environment pathway which finds new ways to encourage this next generation and provide them with the education and skills they need. With industry partner AECOM, we have co-adopted ­Royal High School and had multi-disciplinary Masters students teach modern digital design techniques on a voluntary basis via the Design Engineer and Construct ­programme.

We will be launching a graduate apprenticeship scheme to reinforce our traditional degree courses with industry-tailored content and ­vocational upskilling for the new ­academic year in September.

We’re also working with Entrepreneurial Scotland to deliver career acceleration for undergraduate, early career postgraduate and doctorate students via our new Built Environment Exchange (beX).

Students from diverse degree backgrounds are eligible to apply to the beX postgraduate scholarship ­programme. beX also offers penultimate and final year students the chance to participate in paid international industry work experience.

The programme harnesses ­talent from a wide range of areas, not just architecture, engineering and construction. Different disciplines need to work together to eradicate waste and defects whilst creating sustainable solutions designed for comfort and the end user. Drawing on a range of talents can also ­create, for example, digital frameworks and product design solutions for automated manufacture and logistical management.

Our beX process has led to individual success stories. Rory Doak, via a Saltire Scholarship and follow-on Masters in advanced ­structural engineering, has worked on pre-manufactured schools in Malawi using local resources.

His developed engineering skills have resulted in him undertaking structural design for the Dyson Institute and he will see this through production having taken a graduate job at Carbon Dynamic in the Highlands.

Edinburgh Napier beX has also developed ties with the Harvard Graduate School of Design in ­Boston to further understand how we can shape the built environment using offsite manufacturing – essentially creating buildings in a factory.

A group of organisations have formed Offsite Solutions Scotland (OSS), with Edinburgh Napier as the lead academic partner and backing from Scottish Enterprise and the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre.

OSS – including Stewart Milne Timber Systems, CCG, Carbon Dynamic, MAKAR Construction, Scotframe, Mactaggart & Mickel, Norscot, Robertson and Alexanders Timber Design – has a combined manufacturing output of £170million, and employs more than 1,000 people. Delivering built environment projects under a factory roof offers a clean working environment, improving productivity, enhancing quality and facilitating workforce diversification.

It is predicted that the UK needs 295,000 homes every year until 2037 to tackle housing shortages. These houses need to meet future regulations given the challenge of fuel ­poverty and the environmental impact buildings have, accounting for about half of all our extracted materials and energy consumption.

The fabric-first approach of OSS responds to this, with high levels of insulation reducing energy use and factory precision reducing waste materials by up to 40 per cent. In addition, OSS can embrace change and the emergence of digitisation, with computer-aided design and manufacture used as standard in their businesses.

Instead of a poorly-organised framework of construction activities, we want to see the delivery of the built environment through lean process thinking underpinned by top talent.

Dr Robert Hairstans, associate professor in Edinburgh Napier University’s School of Engineering and the Built Environment.