Industry will have no choice but to modernise with large-scale programmes, writes Jaimie Johnston

The way our sector has developed over several decades has created many challenges to integration and innovation. While an industry such as manufacturing is relatively holistic and integrated, construction has atomised into many areas of deep but narrow specialist expertise.

Construction remains focused on sectors and exploiting the differences between them, rather than looking for commonality and efficiency.

This has multiplied the number of people and roles engaged in every project team. Gaps between specialisms create risk and potential points of failure, while the number of individual touchpoints gives rise to extraordinary complexity.

We have come to view the design and delivery of projects as a series of linear, sequential steps. Individuals play their specific part within the project, and no more.

Jaimie Johnston from Bryden Wood in front of a yellow wall

This is grossly inefficient. And for construction to deliver the built environment we need – sustainable, liveable, achievable – it must change.

Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) can bring all the elements back together and create an integrated way of working which has the potential to transform the sector.

But delivering MMC successfully requires a holistic approach that is not constrained by unhelpful discipline, work stage and sector boundaries. And the full benefits of a manufacturing-led approach cannot be realised on any single, isolated, project.

The transformation that we so badly need will only come when we can apply solutions consistently and at scale; we must look beyond projects, programmes and sectors to identify solutions that can be used across the industry.

This is what the UK government has been doing.

The government’s long journey to transform construction

The government has recognised the need and has been on a consistent – and persistent – journey to transform construction for many years now. Its vision has become progressively more focused and detailed; from an initial broad intention to increase timeliness, cost-effectiveness, productivity and carbon reduction through the use of MMC, through to specific recommendations for a component-based manufacturing approach.

And, most recently, ministers have stated their intention to mandate a “platform” approach to design and construction.

Government and supporting bodies have been looking to identify commonality across sectors to define the components and processes that we can use to deliver a wide variety of built assets. The Construction Playbook outlined this need to “harmonise, digitise and rationalise” across projects and programmes.

Not only will this enable the market to plan more efficiently, but it will also create a more integrated approach to planning construction, overcoming sector silos, to take a more holistic view of assets and infrastructure requirements.

The Construction Innovation Hub’s authoritative Defining the Need report, published around the same time, explored the extent of commonality between sectors, analysing £50bn of assets in the government development pipeline, and demonstrating that 70% could be delivered using a single set of standard structural components.

The report showed that, in a specialist building like a hospital, the majority of physical spaces are not in fact sector specific – they are made up of circulation, waiting rooms, offices, plant space and so on. These are generic spaces common to many sectors and can therefore be connected during planning stages to give the ability to procure at a huge scale.

This report shows how the scale of benefits of MMC can be massively amplified if the industry looks beyond individual streams of work, and beyond individual projects, to consider needs at a programme and portfolio level.

More recently, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s Transforming Infrastructure Performance: Roadmap to 2030 explains how this harmonisation of commonalities across the government portfolio will enable a “platform” approach to design for manufacture and assembly. In this approach, the commonalities identified across the estate will reveal sets of components and assemblies – kits of parts – that can be put together in a multitude of different ways to create multiple different products.

With component parts that are easily available from existing suppliers (with no barrier to new manufacturers entering the market) and can be assembled simply and intuitively, in countless ways, to sustainably create a huge range of spaces across sectors.

In addition, the process of defining these commonalities generates clearly defined sets of rules which can be machine-readable and so allow for digitisation of parts of the design process through the use of “configurators”. As the Roadmap to 2030 sets out, “configurators marry rules with component data in the digital catalogue to automate the generation of design, from a schedule of rooms to a digital asset model and could ultimately provide outputs such as a full cost breakdown or a list of approved suppliers”.

With buildings configured from standard sets of components with standard parameters, models can be generated from the associated data sets and BIM models become a view of that data set, rather than being created from scratch.

This will open up new ways to design, automating the basic, repetitive tasks that take up so much design time, and freeing up designers to test and apply a much greater range of solutions, using more simulation, greater optimisation and better outcomes. This will transform the value proposition for designers and create a quicker iterative approach that becomes cyclical in contrast to today’s more linear approach.

The future is already here – in Southwark

At Bryden Wood, we have already developed digital configurators for a number of sectors. Several of them, such as our PRiSM app for housing, are open source and freely accessible, to allow everyone to see how this approach to design could develop.

The approach also unlocks use of automation in manufacture and assembly, creating direct communication between design and supply. For example, on The Forge, a new commercial office in Southwark, central London, for Landsec (the UK’s largest commercial property development and investment company), the use of platforms means that many of the components were not drawn.

Instead, the digital models were sent directly to the manufacturer, EasiSpace, which used robotic cutting and welding to manufacture the components to sub-millimetre accuracy.

The Roadmap to 2030 also sets out a vision for “factory conditions in the construction stage” asserting that “a mixture of simple human operations, low complexity automation, and lean manufacturing principles can improve health and safety, help to increase productivity and speed of assembly, and address the skills gap”.

This has already been adopted on The Forge, where reach stackers (an advanced form of pallet stacker that can lift and position loads, typically used in distribution warehouses) are used on site to lift and locate some structural components, temporary works and MEP cassettes.

It is early days for platforms, but at the Forge we have already seen increases in productivity and, for instance, a reduction in embodied carbon of 24%. The project will be the first commercial building to be certified net zero by the UK Green Building Council.

But imagine these gains in productivity and sustainability multiplied across the entire government development pipeline, and beyond…

An industry shift - mandated

The government’s engagement in a platforms approach and its commitment to mandating it will shift the industry in the same way the BIM mandate did in 2011. This approach brings with it the mindset and process shift towards integration and the holistic approach that is needed to form a new, more optimised design to construction process.

That will allow us all to reap the benefits of MMC at the scale that the industry, and society, need.

Jaimie Johnston is a director and head of global systems at Bryden Wood