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Graphic element Research > Growth > Research projects > Products & processes projects > Building for the environment
Graphic element Building for the environment

The construction industry is the European Union's biggest employer. It churns out 11% of the EU's GDP, and is a leader in world export markets. But even its best friends would hesitate to describe is as the most innovative of sectors. And it is usually, if often unfairly, cast as the villain in the environment debate. Two things are clear: the industry, like any other, has to innovate or die; and it needs to focus much more tightly not just on protecting the environment, but on making a positive contribution to enhancing it. Three years ago, the European Commission set about creating up a network to run a series of research projects aimed at meeting both these objectives.

Building design, architectural fashion, environmental pressures on raw materials and changes in the way we live and work have transformed the way we build. The craving for modernisation and preservation has imposed new demands on the industry. Environmental protection is now a mainstream issue. Advance in ergonomics and social psychology have made us more aware of the effect of how we build on how we relate to each other. Fertile ground, one would think, for a radical and innovative approach to the business of building…

Not quite. In the words of Scott Steedman, the president of the European Construction Council for Research, Development and Innovation (ECCREDI), "a culture of innovation has been totally lacking in construction in Europe for many decades." Mr Steedman describes the European level of investment in R&D as "derisory". "Interest in R&D and translating results into innovation is limited to a very few companies and institutions," he says.

Fragmented structure

To be fair to the industry, it does have some excuses. It is a low profit business with long-lasting products. "The annual building replacement rate is 2%, so the average life of a building is 50 years. Given such time frames, clients tend to favour the most conservative options," explains George Katalagarianakis, the scientific officer responsible for construction research in the EC.

The industry is also fragmented. In Europe, it comprises two million companies, with 92% of them employing fewer than ten people. This makes it difficult either to invest in R&D or to share information and knowledge.

So, in 1995, a group of entrepreneurs, designers, architects and researchers from technological and professional institutes founded ECCREDI to get round this problem. ECCREDI operates as the hub for a network of 14 member associations representing all levels of the industry - materials manufacturers, civil engineering firms and architects.

Hitting the target

ECCREDI soon made an impact. Two years after its creation, the European Commission asked it to organise a 'targeted research action' on Construction technologies to preserve the environment. The TRA run by ECCREDI now involves more than 600 specialists from companies, research centres and university laboratories working on a range of EC-funded research projects. More than 75 ran in the first year, and 120 are on the go today.
The ECCREDI TRA aims to

  • provide a European forum where people can share their knowledge and experience, and develop new ideas and research;
  • share and exploit research results more quickly;
  • improve the co-ordination of research being carried out in European Commission programmes; and
  • inform R&D programme planners on the research needs and priorities of tomorrow.

The meetings are all workshop-based, with the emphasis on delivering practical results. Plans are already underway to extend the scheme into a Strategic Thematic Network when the present contract expires in March 2001. And there are also moves to extend the network into Central and Eastern Europe, with the ECCREDI/TRA 4th Annual Workshop to be hosted in Prague in October 2000.

  12 project clusters

The projects cover 12 thematic groups (or 'clusters'), ranging from research into the technology, performance and durability of construction materials such as concrete, wood and steel to managing the different life-stages of buildings and recycling in construction.

Current projects include:

  Improving engineering maintenance

Increasing the lifetime of buildings while reducing their maintenance requirements offers important environmental benefits. When large structures decay, the only way to monitor the process is more or less to watch it happen by visual inspection and using instrumentation exploiting discrete strain sensors.

The three-year MILLENNIUM (monitoring of large civil engineering structures for improved maintenance) project, run under the TRA cluster on 'Testing and quality assurance for construction', is due to end in June 2001. It set out to harness information technology by creating an on-line strain measurement system that allows precise maintenance control of large civil engineering structures surviving for up to 100 years.

The project should yield crucial data for structures such as bridges, tunnels, off-shore dams and others subject to unusual stresses introduced by environmental conditions - such as earthquakes, high winds, floods and ice.

Current technology relies on devices such as resistive gauges. These are time-consuming to insert, require many electrical inter-connections, have short working lives and are difficult to implant during the construction process. The new technology is based on optical fibre distributed sensing which is much more sensitive, and easier to integrate within structures. The successful development of this technology will lead to more cost-effective maintenance schedules, and greatly improved safety standards.

The project team is made up of companies and institutions from five EU states, and is co-ordinated by the Department of Civil Engineering at the London-based City University.

  Managing construction waste

Anyone who has ever passed a building site will know how much waste it can generate. Rather than cleaning up after the event, the Waste management in the field of construction with prevention as a main goal project looked at cutting down on the waste in the first place.

This hands-on project, which finished in early 2000, was part of the TRA cluster on 'recycling in construction'. It involved putting up five buildings with 40 dwellings, one each in France, Norway, Belgium, Italy and the UK. The project was co-ordinated by Malou Origer from OSL, Luxembourg, and included partners from eight EU Member States.

The builder and the architect were given guidance on selecting the safest and most eco-friendly materials, and they logged all the waste generated during the project. There were regular consultations throughout the work on-site to train and advise staff on how to keep waste - and, therefore, costs - to a minimum. And each site had its own collection point where the debris was weighed, and recorded before being collected for an equally well-monitored disposal.

It was a painstaking process. But, when fully evaluated, the results should yield valuable data that will help set up calculation models for contractors and builders working on future projects.


  Creating high quality housing

The FutureHome project is part of the TRA cluster on 'construction process and management of the different life stages of construction'. This is another hands-on project, and one that aims at helping EU Member States meet a vital social need: building affordable housing.

he project is co-ordinated by Dr Robert Wing from the Civil Engineering Department of the UK's Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine.

The intention is to build up a pool of data on building pre-fabricated housing that every Member State can use - but that takes account of national and regional styles, designs and materials - and the preferences of owners and occupiers.

FutureHome will create adaptable and sustainable building concepts that promote the use of prefabricated parts and assemblies, and help develop software tools for design, configuration, production and assembly. These tools will be used as part of production and assembly processes both for off-site prefabrication plants and on-site production and assembly.

The focus throughout will be on value for money, improved productivity, ease of maintenance and sustainability. The benefits will include:

  • a 30% reduction in construction costs;
  • a 35% reduction in construction time; and
  • a 60% reduction in defects on completion.

As with most of the projects in this TRA, the aim is to make the environment cleaner and safer, and the industry more efficient and competitive.

Fragmented structure
Hitting the target
12 project clusters
Improving engineering maintenance
Managing construction waste
Creating high quality housing

Key EU-funded research

Work on more efficient, innovative and environmentally friendly construction technologies is an important strand of the Materials and their technologies for production and transformation generic activity. The targeted research action on Environmentally friendly construction technologies consists of 12 clusters of projects covering materials themselves, the life cycle of the construction and recycling. Activities include:

MILLENNIUM - monitoring of large civil engineering structures for improved maintenance
Waste management in the field of construction with prevention as a main goal
FutureHome - housing for Europe in the next century: affordable, high quality homes for all

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