Zero Construct - Technology and Net Zero targets in construction

Johnathan Munkley, one of ZERO Construct’s founding members, talks about carbon reduction, technology’s role and the challenges faced.

Anthony Puma of Payapps took the opportunity to interview one of ZERO Construct’s founding members, Johnathan Munkley, as part of Payapps’ ‘From Surviving to Thriving’ initiative. The initiative aims to highlight opportunities within the construction sector and provides a vital platform to ‘knowledge share’ in support of the industry’s evolution.

Johnathan is head of the digital services team at WSP Group, leading the adoption of future technologies within the UK and internationally. His team focuses on the delivery of BIM, digital innovation, and information management. As a founding member of Zero Construct (a community whose mission is to tackle climate change head on and create an industry construction culture that continuously measures and manages carbon through all project stages) Johnathan understands the importance of digitisation in helping to achieve net zero.

In the interview we explore:

  • How Zero Construct got started and the collaboration between members
  • The Net Zero by 2050 target
  • How materials shortage and rising costs are affecting the industry
  • How digitisation can help achieve net zero goals
  • Blockers to digital uptake
  • How Johnathan approached the pandemic
  • Any tips and tricks to share with the industry
  • Predictions for the future

Surviving To Thriving: Zero Construct Transcript 

The topic of climate change is at the forefront of most of our minds. But, with government-issued plans in place to have the construction industry operating at net zero for emissions by 2050, are organisations ready to do their part to help?

Accompanied by Payapps’ Anthony Puma, Jonathan explained more about his role, the work he’s done as a core member of ZERO Construct, and how attainable a net zero future for the industry could be.

Anthony Puma: Hi, Jonathan. Thank you for joining us today at Digital Construction Week. Do you want to give us a brief introduction to who you are and a bit about your background?

Jonathan Munkley: So, my name's Jonathan Munkley. I lead the digital services team at WSP. We focus on BIM, digital innovation, information management, and digital advisory within the broader WSP business.

Anthony Puma: WSP is one of the core members of ZERO Construct - can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved, a bit about ZERO Construct, and the collaboration between members?

Jonathan Munkley: So, alongside a guy called James Bowles that I'm really good friends with, we were working on projects in America during the lockdown, working on data centres. They were building a lot of them - it was a program of 30 data centres. Then, one day the client said, right, we want 60 data centres, and I was kind of a little bit shocked that someone could do that, just like that. So, James and I started adding carbon as a metric for measurement on the project.

So, the idea is to show how the client can see how their design changes impact the embodied carbon of the project. And then James started driving the idea of bringing together a community to look at that on a broader scale. So, over the last 18 months to two years, ZERO Construct has grown as a global community focused on reducing upfront carbon in construction.

Anthony Puma: Currently, the built environment accounts for an estimated 12% of all CO2 emissions - and the government's committed to net-zero for the industry by 2050. Do you think it's achievable?

Jonathan Munkley: I think it has to be, rather than "Is it?" - I think the definition of net-zero is interesting, as anything you build has embodied carbon. There'll be a lot of carbon offset, net and nature-based solutions.

I don't think there's an alternative for our industry or our planet, and our climate for the construction industry to buck itself up. It needs its kind of panic moment at some point to start to shift the change. There is stuff you can do today on projects, there's stuff you can do tomorrow on projects. It's just not happening on a broad enough scale yet.

So, to cut a long story short, I think it's achievable - it'll just be very hard. Construction is a difficult industry to change.

Anthony Puma: So, as we know, leading on from that, the industry is facing significant challenges and material shortages and rising costs. Do you feel this is impacting companies' approaches to the steps they take in helping them achieve net zero, and would you look at alternative build methods to help alleviate those sorts of pressures on companies around that sort of issue?

Jonathan Munkley: I think it could have a negative impact, in all honesty. Construction, the construction design consultancy, and the built environment run on very tight margins. So it's very much driven by keeping and protecting those margins. So as soon as there's any cost shock, it changes the way people will think.

So, for example, procuring low carbon concrete is very hard as it takes a lot longer, and there's not as much of it. So it's not used widely like traditional concrete, but there are alternative methods, mixes and different ways to make traditional concrete to achieve that. It's just not known about yet - the concrete experts in ZERO Construct tell me that you can start to reduce it today by like 6% just by changing the current mix. So there are things you can do.

But, I think the cost shock will have the opposite effect on it, in all honesty, at the moment.

Anthony Puma: Yeah. And this year, you have a zero-gallery lounge stand at this digital construction event. So why did you feel that DCW was the right place to bring your message to the forefront?

Jonathan Munkley: There are probably multiple facets to that. So my background in my career in construction over the last 15 years has been very much focused on digital. So Digital Construction Week has always been a place I've attended. I think digital processes can play a huge role in carbon reduction, offering the ability to measure and understand their decisions.

Equally, a large part of ZERO's community is at Digital Construction Week. The idea of being here to bring that community together and show our broader network what we've done was the right thing to do. For example, there were roughly 200 people in and around this stand last night when we hosted our reception. So it shows that we've managed to drive a lot of interest.

Anthony Puma: Yeah - wonderful! And, from your view, how important do you feel digitisation is to achieving net zero?

Jonathan Munkley: I think it has a crucial part to play - without digitising the way you design, you can't measure anything. Therefore, you wouldn't really know what your design does.

So, for example, if you work in BIM or 3D and embed the embodied carbon data in the material, you can start understanding the embodied carbon in the design. You can see the design changes or have the ability to measure efficiencies or if something is achieving its objectives.

The idea of the ultimate term, the digital twin of an asset - or a smart asset - is going to play a crucial part in carbon reduction for the built environment. Without digital, I don't think we would make the steps towards carbon reduction. It's got a fundamental role to play in it, in my opinion.

Anthony Puma: At Payapps, we believe the adoption of digital is the absolute key to growth in the industry as well, and you have been focusing on the adoption of future technologies within the UK, and also I understand internationally for over 15 years. Where do you feel the blocker is for digital uptake, and what do you think we should be doing to address it?

Jonathan Munkley: I think there are lots of blockers. The easy low-hanging fruit when it comes to blockers is the generational gap. Take, for example, immersive technologies. They are used by teenagers every day in their day-to-day lives. They will take that into their careers. So, things like gamification, we use that on projects, but it's not mass adopted. I think in five to ten years, gamification of projects will be completely normal.

I also think in construction, there's, in a lot of ways, too much technology. I don't think our industry needs any more technology at the moment, it just needs to adopt what it's got and do it well. I can't remember seeing a piece of tech in the last three years that I was like, "Wow, that's gonna change the game", because we're still not using the tools we have to their capacity.

So just throwing more tech at stuff doesn't fix it. We need to focus more on the people, the process, the why, and the business strategy.

Anthony Puma: Yeah, absolutely - and also, if you look at the last two years, we've gone through an unprecedented time for - certainly the industry as a whole - what do you think of this approach and what changes were needed to help survive during this time? And, looking back, would there be anything you do differently?

Jonathan Munkley: One of the companies I was working at in the 'before times', I like to call them, before the pandemic, didn't want to adopt things like 360 Teams. And the pandemic forced the mass adoption of Teams and all the cloud-based solutions across the group. There was a kind of an initial set of panic, and then it worked. However, I think there have been some negative impacts on the back of remote working and everyone going fully remote.

Online meeting fatigue has become a genuine concern for staff. Sometimes, my team members wake up in the morning, put on a headset, and don't take it off until six o'clock - they're back-to-back nonstop. If people see a gap in your calendar, they take it.

So the idea of hybrid working becomes difficult because people see 10 hours of meetings and think, "Why should I travel to an office to sit in meetings online?"

There's also a potential negative impact on graduates and emerging talent. They won't have that person to sit next to in the office or that kind of mentorship - especially for the first six months in the industry where you need someone next to you to understand what you're doing and learn from.

So really, as a team, we want to push that in the next 12 to 18 months from a growth perspective to get the idea of apprentices and graduates back into our team anyway.

Anthony Puma: And, lastly, what are your takeaways from Digital Construction Week, and what do you see in the industry's future?

Jonathan Munkley: I think in the next few years, there is going to be an insane push for carbon reduction, and it's going to become the message for everybody on projects.

It seems to be a much easier conversation with people in terms of a narrative. So, if you went to a client five or six years ago and said, "You must do BIM on your project because you're gonna save money", it wasn't the easiest conversation to have because they didn't get it, generally.

It took a long time to explain something, with lots of presentations. But, if there are things like the EU taxonomy coming out and potential policy changes, the idea is for clients to drive carbon out of their project through scope 1, 2, and 3 - it's going to become a fundamental topic in every project.

ZERO Construct's a brilliant learning platform for me, with the ability to take some of the stuff I've learned into my job, because every single project I work on now has a carbon angle just about, and I don't think that's going to change. I think that's just going to ramp up.

Anthony Puma: Great. Jonathan, it's been an absolute pleasure talking to you - thanks so much for sharing it and taking us through it. I appreciate your time.

Jonathan Munkley: Thank you. Thank you for having me