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Building on brain power

Knowledge exchange between Scotland and the Nordic countries is usually assumed to be a one-way street, so it is cheering to hear about a visit of Swedish and Finnish business owners and researchers.

For three days in December, the 15-strong delegation visited sites in Edinburgh, Fife and Glasgow, including the Commonwealth Games village in Dalmarnock.

"People were very impressed," the tour's organiser, Denise McCluskey, tells the Sunday Herald from Stockholm.

In Sweden, where building is dominated by big corporate vested interests, construction costs 72% above the European average and most projects tend to use greenhouse gas-producing materials such as concrete and steel.

McCluskey says: "In Scotland, innovation seems to arise from the need to produce affordable housing for people and limited resources; also the use of modern methods of construction, which means making as much as possible offsite where it's easier to control conditions. That may be something to do with the weather but it rains a lot in Wales as well, and Scotland has been a leader in this for decades."

Apparently celebrated more abroad than at home, Scotland's world-beating levels of timber use in-house construction - and its successful experimentation in building methodology - are worth celebrating by anyone who cares about the country's future prospects. Especially as the wider picture of the housebuilding industry has - until the recent upturn - been a story of slashed output and job cuts.

And it shows that construction is still hugely important to Scotland's economy. If the innovation culture in building can be consolidated, nurtured and branded, its contribution could become even more significant.

This is the thinking behind the plan for a Construction Scotland Innovation Centre (CSIC), a new, £10 million venture designed to exploit Scotland's existing industrial and academic strengths in the field of building.

The Scottish building sector employs 170,000 people. This equates to 10% of all Scottish jobs across 31,000 businesses, with a combined Gross Value Added (GVA) of £8.7 billion. The vast majority of these firms (80%) have fewer than 10 employees, but in 2011-12 the top 10 Scottish construction firms employed 6000 people directly and had a total turnover of £2.2bn.

Although not promoted in international markets to the extent of life sciences, IT, oil and gas, and food and drink, Scots construction innovation has an equally good story to sell to global markets.

In a recent foreword to the 2013-16 construction industry strategy document, Enterprise Minister Fergus Ewing cited tarmacadam and the Falkirk Wheel as great Scottish construction innovations. There were plenty of others he could have chosen - especially if you include the maths and physics underpinning many universal construction practices.

Many of the great Scots building breakthroughs are more obscure than they should be: the revolutionary crane designs of James Bremner (1784-1856), the tubular steel of Sir William Fairbairn (1789-1874) and the innovations in glass house construction from John Louden (1783-1843).

While, according to Ewing, "our architecture, design, engineering and project management capabilities are well regarded across the world", industry leaders, working with academics and economic planners, are determined to consolidate and expand Scotland's reputation as a global locus of building innovation.

The construction industry (particularly housebuilding) sits at the centre of an economy-spanning network of cause and effect - one of the reasons why its shrinking in the recent crash was so damaging in terms of direct employment figures and its effect on the supply chain. But the benefits are correspondingly positive when things improve. Ewing says: "The output of the construction industry has a major impact on all of Scotland's key sectors and therefore underpins the success of our whole economy."

Bill McBride, currently managing director of Westcrowns, a family-owned industrial glass and flooring specialist operating in Rutherglen since 1855, has been appointed interim chairman of CSIC with the task of co-ordinating the "triple helix" of industry, academia and Government represented by the new industry leadership group.

His job is to establish a new industry "hub", involving 11 Scottish higher education institutions, which will focus and direct efforts to commercialise the discoveries of Scotland's rich array of construction boffins, by matching solutions produced in the university lab to problems discovered on the building site or the architect's drawing board. CSIC will be, in that favourite cliché, "a one-stop shop" for accessing a team of academic experts and support, helping to maximise long-term economic growth.

McBride says: "We have an initial grant of £7.5m from the Scottish Funding Council, Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and a further £2.5m applied for to cover the next five years, with the task of creating and establishing an innovation culture within Scotland.

"We are putting together an interim board, and the plan is to make this as all-inclusive as possible. The emphasis is on people development, as the biggest driver of innovation is successful leadership. We have this absolute wealth of experience and knowledge and we need to engage them more, and get them to feed their ideas more into the wider industry."

As well as the in-built small-country advantage of short geographical distances between industrial and academic players, construction innovation in Scotland has been given an extra boost by the Scottish Government's emphasis on a low-carbon economic strategy. This means that building technologies, energy-related retrofits, and waste reduction measures are already offering domestic opportunities. Building technologies and energy management sectors alone are forecast to support 15,000 jobs by 2020.

The Scottish investment in the low-carbon retrofit market for buildings alone is expected to be worth £400m over the next five years, making a huge contribution to the overall Scottish industry's strategy is to grow GVA by £800m by 2016.

The list of areas where new ways of doing things is nothing if not comprehensive. It will include energy performance of buildings, road and rail infrastructure engineering, product innovation, construction textiles, concrete technologies, architectural design, timber technologies, smart ICT systems, offsite construction, flooding, building services, advanced materials, carbon reduction, renewable energy, noise and vibration, smart cities, retrofit of buildings, building information modelling, waste reduction and re-use of materials, quality of life measures and construction processes.

The process leading to the formation of CSIC was initiated by Sean Smith, professor of construction innovation at Edinburgh Napier University.

In 2009, Smith realised that Scottish and UK builders were likely to struggle with new regulation on low-carbon buildings. The onset of "green tape" would require, he says, "a paradigm shift in combining the collective knowledge and support of industry, academia and public sector".

When the Scottish Funding Council called in 2012 for "thematic innovation centres supporting key sectors", Smith was inspired to gather together Scotland's key construction research experts.

He says: "The support and enthusiasm from my colleagues in other higher education institutions was superb and it was a keystone meeting - excuse the pun - which initiated the bid development. The scale and capacity of expertise within that meeting was a testament to why Scotland's universities have some of the world's leading experts for the built environment sector."

Scotland's strength in offsite construction gives the sector a clear head start in innovation. Companies such as Stewart Milne, CCG, Oregon, Applegreen, Enegroup, Scotframe and Mactaggart & Mickel have invested in offsite assembly systems for complete walls, floors, roofs and in some cases whole houses.

Interest in this sector has come from Brazil, Russia, Middle East and China as well as Scandinavia, where only 20% of newbuild housing is from timber frame structures (versus Scotland's 74%).

Offsite construction has clear long-term advantages, as the techniques applied on the factory floor can reduce energy costs by 70% below the average existing home.

Given that industry and academia seem to be working together quite well already, does Scotland need another institute or talking shop - along with a staff, premises, glossy strategy documents and all the paraphernalia of quangodom - to be, in public sector-speak, the "key delivery vehicle" of change?

McBride, whose own background is in patenting and selling new technologies round the world, is determined CSIC does not exist to tick boxes and provide more publicly-funded posts. He notes that in this post ivory-tower era, academics are required to show the economic impact of their research, which makes them well disposed to ensuring that CSIC succeeds.

"This has to be results-driven," he says. "There is a lot of public money involved, it needs to be sustainable. The questions I will be asking are, 'What are the returns in terms of jobs? And sales? And exports?' It's a doing thing, not a talking thing, it's more like, 'Show me the money'."

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