Last week the Building the Future commission published its final report. In this chapter, Thomas Lane considers the best ways to increase productivity by investing in and embracing emerging technologies  

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The challenge of how to improve construction’s poor productivity has exercised the best minds for decades. The Latham report of 1994 came first and was followed by Egan in 1998, then Farmer in 2016. The recommendations of these reports, which are mostly relevant today, are broadly similar and include more collaboration between teams, less adversarial relationships, wider adoption of modern methods of construction and digital technologies. 

Technical advances in the past 30 years have made adopting some of these recommendations much easier. The introduction of BIM, which has been widely adopted thanks to the 2016 BIM mandate, has helped drive greater collaboration between teams. But design for manufacturing and assembly (DfMA) has had a bumpier ride. The future of modular construction looks questionable, with several high-profile failures, whereas pre-manufactured service modules and bathroom pods have become the norm on larger projects. 

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>> Download the full commission report: The long-term plan for construction

The government and the industry continue to make steady progress towards improved productivity. In 2020 the government published the Construction Playbook, which includes 14 policies that seek to reform public sector procurement with a best practice framework to improve project outcomes. Like the 2016 BIM mandate, the adoption of those policies is mandatory for central government procurement. In September last year, the Construction Leadership Council announced a plan to boost industry productivity by 25% by 2035 in a bid to match the economy average. 

 The findings of the Building the Future Commission chime with many of these recommendations. Throughout 2023 the commission investigated the potential of DfMA, digital technology and artificial intelligence to improve productivity, and sought feedback from its commissioners and the wider industry through our consultation events. 

 The industry must increase the proportion of standardised components and DfMA to significantly improve productivity and quality and must guard against the effects of an ageing, diminishing workforce. One of the reasons DfMA has failed to get greater industry traction is that the factors conducive to efficient factory production match up poorly against construction.

Factories are most efficient when producing large volumes of standardised components, making these most suited to highly repetitive types of project. Many residential schemes fit this model, but the unpredictable nature of this market is challenging for factories which must operate consistently at maximum capacity to generate the necessary return on investment. A desire for bespoke building designs is not conducive to standardisation. 

Platform approaches, as called for by the Construction Playbook, address many of these challenges. A platform is a set of standardised, repeatable components coupled with a standardised, repeatable design and construction process. This has the advantage of allowing the same platform to be used for a variety of building types which can be customised to the specifics of the site and end use, creating a much bigger market for manufacturers.

A structural platform can be combined with non-standard components to produce a bespoke-looking building. An open source or licensed platform system could be produced by several manufacturers, which promotes competition, reduces cost and increases supply options.   

 A more recent industry challenge is the need to embrace zero carbon buildings. This requires greater scrutiny of building systems and the materials and construction processes needed to realise net zero. The industry must move towards a circular economy where products are reused and buildings are designed for disassembly. This means net zero and DfMA must be considered in parallel from the outset. 

Successful adoption of these principles requires changes to the design and construction process which will take time to optimise. To facilitate these changes, the Building the Future Commission recommends the following: 

Develop a better understanding of the factors that improve construction productivity 

Clients and the wider industry need to be confident that changes to the tried and tested ways of doing things will deliver the promised benefits. The Construction Productivity Task Force, which is part of Be The Business and responsible for the private sector Construction Playbook, is building an evidence base in order to demonstrate how productivity can be improved. 

  • Measuring construction performance has two positive benefits: it can identify strengths and weaknesses in the construction process which can be used to improve performance. Once this information has been used to optimise construction performance, the benefits can be shared with the wider industry as a driver for change. 
  • Analysis of the construction process can identify unexpected inefficiencies, which if rectified can bring big productivity improvements. The University of Cambridge, which is working with the Construction Productivity Task Force, monitored the platform system used at The Forge, a Landsec office development in London’s Southwark. It discovered the productivity of the teams installing the service modules varied enormously because time was being spent on non-core activities such as taking deliveries. This demonstrated that efficient logistics are essential to realising the benefits of the platform system – a dedicated logistics crew would free up the module installation teams to concentrate on that task, and if they could achieve 75% of the maximum possible installation time consistently then a massive 40% could be sliced off the programme. 

Prioritise early design development 

Early planning pays off, as evidence from the benchmarking, research and consulting organisation Independent Project Analysis demonstrates. Its database of 20,000 projects shows that those with the best-quality early stage planning had 20% lower costs and were delivered 10%-15% faster than average. 

  • Designs should be assessed for the potential advantages offered by DfMA at the outset and, if adopted, developed for a DfMA workflow. Factory processes demand fully developed designs before manufacture starts as subsequent changes are expensive and disrupt production. 
  • Achieving net zero demands that designs are forensically scrutinised to ensure that building structures and services are as lean as possible to minimise upfront embodied carbon and deliver predicted building performance. Energy efficiency ratings systems such as NABERS will help drive this change as designs must be fully modelled and independently verified. As teams start embedding net zero targets into building contracts, designs will need to be fully developed prior to tendering in order to mitigate risk pricing being built in. 
  • The supply chain should be involved in design development as their expertise will help improve buildability and reduce risk. 

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Prepare for the next digital revolution 

Digital technology is undergoing a revolution, thanks to the rapid development of artificial intelligence along with sensor and automation technology. This will have a profound impact on the tools and processes that are used for design, planning, construction and building operations. Machine learning capabilities are already being embedded in design software and being used to create more accurate project estimating and planning tools. 

These tools will continue evolving to the point where there are generative design tools that automate large parts of the design process, with the capability of producing ready-to-go documentation such as that needed for planning applications. The power and sophistication of these tools will speed up the design process as teams will be able to work together in real time. 

Firms that embrace these developments will gain competitive advantage, whereas others risk being left behind 

Digital twin adoption will grow as the means for effective building design and construction, with all data associated with a building linked to it. Digital twins have the potential to significantly reduce operational carbon emissions when combined with sensor technology, with data from this phase used to inform future building design. Automation technology could result in more robots being used on site, either as complementary to or instead of offsite production. Firms that embrace these developments will gain competitive advantage, whereas others risk being left behind. 

  • Firms yet to fully adopt commonplace digital tools such as BIM and information management systems should do so as a matter of urgency. Firms should also start ensuring that their data is consistent, accessible and organised, as this is essential for populating machine learning tools.  
  • Artificial intelligence will change the nature of people’s roles, and how they work. Designers will spend less time on routine tasks as these will become automated, freeing them up for more creative work. Firms should start assessing the impact artificial intelligence will have on their workflows so they are ready for change. Workers will need training so they are able to understand and take advantage of these new technologies. 
  • Greater automation of work will impact on the fees firms can charge. It could drive fees down, which could have a devastating impact on those who continue working traditionally. There is scope to rethink the value firms bring to the design and construction process as digital twins combined with sensor technology will be able to provide real-time building performance information. There is scope to rethink contracts so designers receive fees based on how successfully their buildings perform and also have access to performance data to inform future work. 

More collaborative forms of procurement 

Embedding net zero and modern methods of construction (MMC) into the design and build process means embracing innovation and departing from tried and tested forms of construction. This adds a degree of risk to the process which is unpalatable to an industry that is already managing risk passed by clients down the supply chain. Wafer-thin margins leave very little room when things go wrong. The fragmented nature of construction, where multiple companies are responsible for different parts of the job, is not conducive to delivering a project as efficiently as possible. 

  • Risk-sharing should become the norm to help remove barriers to innovation. Options vary, from construction management where the client bears all the risk, to NEC target cost contracts where client and contractor share any profit or loss. Integrated project teams, where companies come together with a common goal of delivering the project as efficiently as possible, have the potential to deliver the best results. The complexities of setting these up mean they are best suited to high-value, complex projects. We also need upskilling to ensure clients have capacity and competency when it comes to procurement. 

The government should take the lead 

  • As the industry’s largest client, the government should lead by reforming its current procurement rules. These are a barrier to the changes called for in the Construction Playbook. The Grange Hospital in Wales, for example, was delivered under budget and four months early, thanks to DfMA and an integrated project team approach, but the project team had to undergo a very expensive, time-consuming process and model a traditionally built hospital as well as the proposed design to demonstrate to the client that the latter approach would save money. 
  • The government should establish long-term frameworks that are set up to promote greater efficiency through standardisation and make it worthwhile for firms to invest in DfMA. Innovation funding could be provided for each new framework as an encouragement. The New Hospital Programme, which has stated that standardised and modular designs will help deliver hospitals 20% cheaper and 25% faster, is the ideal vehicle for the government to promote this. 
  • The government should audit public sector projects to demonstrate these are adhering to the principles in the Construction Playbook. Evaluating and publishing how these projects have increased value by reducing cost and programme would help encourage others to adopt these principles. 


1. Develop a better understanding of the factors that improve construction productivity by measuring on- and offsite construction performance and using the outputs to build an evidence base as a driver for change.

2. Prioritise early design development to maximise opportunities for DfMA, improve buildability, reduce risk and ensure building structures and services are as lean as possible to reduce embodied carbon and maximise operational performance.

3. Prepare for the next digital revolution by urgently adopting commonplace tools such as BIM and information management systems where necessary, and start ensuring data is consistent, accessible and organised so this is ready to populate machine learning tools for driving greater efficiency.

 4. Employ more collaborative forms of procurement, including integrated teams on large projects, in order to spread the risks of embracing innovation, which is necessary to drive greater productivity and better-performing buildings, and promote more efficient project delivery. 

5. The government should take the lead by reforming its procurement rules to promote greater efficiency through standardisation and establish long-term frameworks to facilitate this. Public sector projects should be audited to ensure central government departments are adhering to the principles in the Construction Playbook and demonstrate the benefits and learning from those projects.

 Download the full report below


BTFC final report cover