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From Bridges to Robots – The Facility’s Innovation Journey

In our latest innovation interview, supported by the Knowledge Transfer Network, we caught up with Oliver Schneider from innovation-led architectural practice The Facility.

The Facility started in the early 1990s as a traditional architecture practice. Oliver’s passion for finding ways to do things differently has led him to take the practice in a different direction, taking on R&D projects themselves. Frustration at ideas not being realised due to technical or funding challenges led the Facility to find ways to solve problems themselves in partnership with clients. Successfully winning R&D funding gave them the confidence that they could do it themselves. The practice now incorporates innovation and sustainability capability.

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The Facility first became involved in innovation through ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’ a design competition to regenerate the railway arches in south London. Rather than dampening the vibrations, the Facility proposed harnessing the energy from the vibrations to create electricity. This turned into energy harvesting, which turned into footfall energy harvesting, capturing the energy of people walking on flooring systems. This represented a step change in Facility’s approach to R&D.

Oliver cites finance as one of the key challenges to commercialising an innovation. Taking a product through to market usually costs much more than innovators expect. Very often small companies very often do not have R&D departments as such. Government and Venture Capital funding can be time consuming and constraining to identify, win and deliver. The recession changed the environment for funding risk and innovation, with much less support available and much higher competition for what was available. Oliver believes that public sector clients can sometimes be quite risk adverse – they want things to be safe, tried and tested making bringing innovative solutions to that environment difficult.

The construction industry can be perceived as very risk adverse, and in comparison to many consumer markets it is. Oliver has found the industry can be unwilling to trial new or different technologies on anything but a limited number of exemplar projects. Innovators can make it easier for themselves by understanding who they are talking to and what their drivers are. Sometimes you may be talking the wrong person (not a decision maker) or the right person but using the wrong language. Innovators need to understand the liability of their clients – where does it start and end? Oliver cites contracts and design brief as major influences on innovation.

As a small company the Facility wanted to work with supply chain partners to adapt existing technology. However rigid supply chains meant that they had to go outside of built environment to source materials. This adds costs, for example regulation and standards for integrating the footfall energy harvesting system on a staircase made going outside the sector more expensive. There are regulations and standards that dictate colour, finishes, treads etc. and therefore it would be easier to work with an existing stair manufacturer. Given the way in which contracts are set up that is not always easy.

Oliver proposes that the dissemination of really relevant information would be of huge benefit to innovators in the sector. When innovating in the built environment there is a tremendous amount of nuances that need to be factored in. Often innovators are unaware of all of fundamental information they need to consider to successfully implement their technology such as awareness of planning regulations or fire safety information. A lot of the information exists but it may be spread out or behind pay walls which can be a barrier for small companies. Open source or free information would rapidly accelerate information in the built environment.

Oliver’s key piece of advice to innovators is the need for two unique skillsets. Innovators need balance to make something work and then sell it someone at the end of the day. On one hand innovators need their blue sky innovation head, innovative passionate thinker that is completely unconstrained and can find an answer to every technical challenge. On the other hand innovators need to be sensible, focussed, thick skinned, pragmatic head. This side of them needs to understand customers and be thick skinned to accept the inevitable knockbacks.

The Facility’s latest research project is Project Cocoon funded by Innovate UK, formerly the Technology Strategy Board, looking at using robotics to apply external wall insulation without the need for scaffolding or wet trades.

On other fronts as the economy is now picking up the Facility is now looking much more closely at winning private sector contracts. Oliver believes that innovating with the private sector can be a much better experience with quicker lead times, easier decision making and much clearer rational behind business cases.

The Facility:
The Knowledge Transfer Network: