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MaGIC: Marginal Gains in Construction

Bringing together small improvements to deliver transformations in performance

Construction is a ten-trillion-dollar industry that underpins economies and worker productivity. Yet despite its importance, construction sector productivity has been flatlining – and practices that have transformed other sectors, including automation and lean principles, have not yet been adopted. Marginal Gains in Construction (MaGIC) brings together multiple programs of work that examine mainstream construction, rather than its glamorous extremes, to achieve maximum impact.

By John Orr

Cutting emissions but increasing urbanisation 

Limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C will require an 80% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This is significant for building and construction, as the sector accounts for 40% of energy-related CO2 emissions. We also expect to add 2.5 billion people to our cities by 2050 and 230 billion square meters of new floor space by 2060 – with almost half of this occurring in countries without mandatory building energy codes. So in parallel to cutting emissions, we must accommodate a growing, and increasingly urban, population.

To effectively tackle climate change, historic practices of inefficient overdesign must be reversed. Success in reducing the energy required to operate buildings, and the introduction of strict targets for near-zero-energy buildings in Europe, now means that the energy associated with materials can approach 100% of total whole-life energy consumption. The importance of this is highlighted by our analysis, which found that embodied energy savings in the order of 50% are possible.

MaterialsBook-251-Orr.jpgThe MaGIC of many small improvements 

The aggregation of small marginal gains that collectively deliver transformations in performance have been successful in sectors such as health care, aviation, and sport. The approach requires performance measurement, allowing decisions to be made with certainty. Today, the design of buildings is done under a cloud of uncertainty – we don’t know what loads the building will be subject to, or how it will respond to them. 

If we are to improve performance, then measurement, reporting, and learning must become the key tenets upon which design is based. Marginal Gains in Construction (MaGIC) brings together multiple programs of work that examine mainstream construction, rather than its glamorous extremes, to achieve maximum impact: 

Enough Is Enough targets lean design

Lean design applied to buildings has the potential to reduce not just carbon dioxide but also costs. Enough Is Enough has identified GBP 3.7 billion in potential savings for the United Kingdom by shaping structures to resist the loads applied to them and no more. Simply adding “and no more” to design codes and procurement documents could have significant benefits. Lean design has enormous potential: a 10% reduction in cement production in China would have a bigger effect on global CO2 than ceasing cement production across Europe. 

Automating Concrete Construction (ACORN) examines robotics

A key component in transforming construction will be the implementation of end-to-end processes that link design decisions to component fabrication and building assembly and can embed within each stage an assessment of whole-life performance. Automating Concrete Construction (ACORN) looks to achieve this through mass customization. By using appropriate automation to design out errors and waste and embed sensing to facilitate performance measurement, ACORN aims to meet the productivity and cost savings associated with mass production without constraining design freedom.

Get It Right Initiative (GIRI) targets the root causes of errors

The Get it Right Initiative (GIRI) looks at project practice in order to assess how errors that cost money and material can be avoided. It has found that around 21% of UK construction costs (GBP 21 billion per year) are due to errors – more than seven times the sector’s profit margin. The causes were found to be rooted in inadequate planning, late design changes, poor communication, and poor culture in relation to quality that requires the move from a culture of “get it done” to “get it right.”

MaterialsBook-250-Orr.jpgMinimising Energy in Construction (MEICON) addresses material efficiency and design culture

Embodied energy efficiency is not yet a high design priority, resulting in buildings that consume more of our resources than necessary. The incentives of clients, architects, engineers, legislators, and contractors are not yet sufficiently aligned to make minimum whole-life embodied energy the preferred outcome. As a result, material savings of 50 percent are routinely overlooked.

Such low-hanging fruit are found on a pathway toward being “more good” and not just “less bad,” recognizing that time is of the essence and change is required now.

Re-materializing Construction

This text is based on the paper MaGIC: Marginal Gains in Construction presented by John Orr at the LafargeHolcim Forum “Re-materializing Construction” held at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.

MaGIC: Marginal Gains in Construction

Inspired by the discussions by 350 leading thinkers from architecture, engineering, planning, and the construction industry from 55 countries, Ruby Press Berlin has published The Materials Book that evaluates current architectural practices and models, and introduces materials and methods to maximize the environmental, social, and economic performance of the built environment in the context of “Re-materializing Construction”.

The Materials Book: Re-materializing Construction – Cairo (Ruby Press)

Last Updated: April 07, 2021
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Cambridge, United Kingdom
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John Orr
John Orr

John Orr is University Lecturer in Concrete Structures and an Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Early Career Fellow...

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