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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
soon made an impact. Two years after its creation, the European
Commission asked it to organise a 'targeted research action' on
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
high quality housing
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.
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;
35% reduction in construction time; and
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
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.
- monitoring of large civil engineering structures for improved
management in the field of construction with prevention as a main
- housing for Europe in the next century: affordable, high quality
homes for all