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What if...we used round concrete pegs?

Anthony Heaton 10 Nov 2014

The construction industry has the unique ability to affect people’s behaviour, by shaping the world that people live, learn, work and heal in. 

As a Sustainability Advisor working for BAM Construction, I am constantly looking at the impacts that our projects have on the wider world around them, and many of the issues I encounter are deeply rooted in the construction industry’s traditional approach. Much like Honda’s advert, I often ask ‘What if?’

No other industry can be as emotive yet scientific, steeped in both cutting edge technology and traditional methods, and is as frustrating as it is inspiring. I experienced this frustration first hand on a site this week as I watched truckload after truckload of concrete pour into the ground to create a foundation. My background is not as a structural engineer and I certainly don’t profess to understand load transfers, bearing capacities or geotechnical reports, but pouring all this concrete into the ground seems a touch narrow-minded. 

With an outsider’s perspective, I was able to more easily question what is a hugely wasteful activity, in both resource, time and cost. Currently we pour large mass fill concrete pad foundations into cubic shapes. But in nature there is no such thing as a straight line or a right angle yet we in the construction industry work extremely hard to ensure every element is square. Why are we fighting nature so hard?

When I asked the site team “What if we cast the pads as cylinders rather than cubes?”, it suddenly opened up a whole new line of enquiry. The cuboid we usually create is 12m3, whereas a cylinder with the same diameter and length would be 9.8m3. And at £75 per m3 of concrete, it could create a potential saving of £200. Also, it would be easier, and quicker to buy and fill pipes as permanent formwork rather than putting up temporary formwork for each concrete cube pour. Although there are structural issues with this idea, it’s a good example of what can happen if we ask ‘what if?’

In the construction industry, we are pressed from all sides to deliver to tight budgets and time scales while optimising quality in all manner of environments, and it is this expectation that forces our hand down the procedural route we have all adopted and follow. If we think about so called ‘cutting edge’ sectors such as IT or product design, ideas are readily questioned at every stage of the process, yet strict time deadlines are adhered to with the output very often new and unique. 

I wonder if this same ‘question at every stage’ approach is possible in construction and if we brainstormed projects thinking ‘what if’, what would result? More engineered timber solutions or an increased uptake of sustainable products? Educated material selection or designs which dramatically reduce waste production on sites? Could prefabrication be given the legs it needs to develop, leading to cost effective solutions and faster construction times? And would true local suppliers of all sizes be able to effect and benefit large scale construction projects?    

By affording more time to thinking laterally and using the ‘what if’ question for everything from site setup to construction methodology, we could not only reduce costs, but also overcome the greater industry barrier of the construction comfort zone. 

To really shape the world around us to be the best it can be, the construction industry has to embrace change and value new perspectives, new ways of doing things, new technology and new ideas.


Anthony Heaton is a Sustainability Advisor at BAM.



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