Why haven’t buildings become productised?

Innovation in the construction industry has been a slow process. Despite advances in technology, and the emergence of industrialised construction some 60 or so years ago, we are still ‘swinging hammers’ on site, creating buildings that are all unique and bespoke.

Why is that? What's missing? Why hasn’t industrialised construction disrupted the way we design and construct buildings?

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The late Harvard Business School Professor and businessman, Clayton Christensen, coined a theory of disruptive innovation which explains this as the way in which companies enter a market at the bottom with a product or service that may be a less expensive and more accessible version of those at the top of the market.

Through relentless growth these new entrants eventually move up to the top of the market, displacing the incumbents.

Taking this meaning of innovation, you could say that Henry Ford was one of the greatest innovators of the 20th century. Ford did not invent the automobile, nor did he invent the manufacturing process that enabled cars to become the ubiquitous machines they are today. 

He merely combined inspiration from the past with a vision for the future and a belief in the changing power of technology. He joined the dots of already existing components to transform what was originally a vehicle for the wealthy few, to a means of accessible transportation for the masses.

How did he do it?

As well as developing cars such as the Model T in 1908, he revolutionised the assembly line, driving down the cost of Ford automobiles to the point where the average wage earner, including his factory workers, could afford them. With the Model T becoming so commonplace, sidewalk gas stations started popping up, eventually bought by the large oil companies such as Shell, Esso and Texaco, with nozzles that fitted perfectly into the Model T’s tank, thus creating standardisation, accessibility and convenience of petrol to fuel the new wave of automobiles.

Mass manufacturing of cars only took 20-30 years and has become mainstream since the advent of Henry Ford’s moving production line. Now virtually all cars are constructed in this way. While we have been doing variants of industrialised construction for 60 years, it still isn’t the norm.

What will be the great innovation that will disrupt the built environment in the 21st century?

What are the blockers? 

  • Does the current design process involving architects and engineers working on bespoke designs prohibit efficiencies and scaling?
  • Are there fundamental differences between market maturity, customer expectations and supply chains for cars as opposed to buildings?
  • Will industrialised construction only have a role to play in emerging economies or large population regions?
  • Is there another newer technology that might leapfrog industrialised construction and pave the way for a different future?
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Explore our insights

Please enjoy the fifth in the series, "Buildings of the Future: Why haven't buildings become productised?" Download the full report or explore our insights via the key themes below.


There is a lot for us to consider

There is a burning platform for change in the design and construction of our built environments. Increasing urban populations, rising demand for residential, commercial, social and public buildings, escalating costs and declining profits, means a step-change needs to occur to create a democratic and sustainable sector for the future.

While prefabrication, modularisation and industrialised design and construction in general is occurring in pockets around the world and has been for decades, it is not occurring broadly, and not at a fast-enough pace for significant change.

Drawing on Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation, the time is ripe for a new entrant to emerge at the bottom of the market, creating a maelstrom of change akin to what Henry Ford achieved with the car industry in the early 1900s and Uber and Airbnb have delivered to transportation and travel in the 21st century.

Low cost, commoditised products available to many through construction robotics and 3D printing systems, with minimum human interface on the actual construction site, is the only way in which we will meet the global need for buildings of the future. New processes, technologies and materials are enablers already in place to assist with this transformation.

All that is now required is a mindset and behaviour shift of designers, developers, owners, suppliers, governments and end-users, towards a new breed of buildings that are built by robots, standardised, commoditised and affordable. While not likely to cater to all, there will still be room for customisation and optimisation. Questions of ethics and craft will also need to be addressed, to ensure a smooth transition. The gains will need to be greater than the losses, for customers to make the shift.

But as Christensen points out, the ‘job that needs to be done’, in this case, hiring an affordable and functional building to provide a house, office, university or healthcare facility is a far more relevant opportunity for widespread innovation than merely tweaking an existing product or service hoping to meet ongoing customer demand.

The buildings of the future may arrive on-site via a 3D printer in a factory or may in fact be assembled in-situ by robotic processes.

They may take weeks rather than months or years to be constructed, and their cost may be a tenth of what they are today. Entire communities could be assembled cheaply and quickly, providing homes and public buildings for currently homeless populations, or at least those for whom home ownership is beyond their reach. On the other end of the scale, high-end buildings featuring customised designs could still be available for those with the means to purchase them.

There is a lot for us to consider – we don’t have all the answers now, but as long as we keep asking the right questions, solutions will eventually emerge.


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