One of 2018’s biggest trends could be the wider adoption of product platforms, delivering buildings from a kit of parts. But is this a fundamental change for the industry or just another flash in the pan?

Just before Christmas I had the pleasure of visiting a recently completed luxury residential development in London. The workmanship was fantastic, featuring careful detailing, immaculate joinery and a lot of attention to the integration of high-quality components. While I admired the care lavished on the design, construction and supervision of this project, I had a nagging feeling that, with construction skills a scarce resource, a disproportionate amount of these skills was being focused on the top end of the market.  

You could argue this has always been the case. Mansions, hotels and corporate palaces have always been a magnet for the finest artisan skills. However, when the skills and supervision levels at the other end of the scale are in such a poor state, it becomes a practical issue of access to resources, with a direct impact on quality of life.

An item from the BBC at the end of last year highlighted the gap of attainment between the top end of the industry and the rest, cataloguing a litany of major faults on a range of housing schemes aimed at the Help to Buy market. According to the House Builders Federation, 98% of purchasers reported defects in their new homes, with over 40% reporting 10 or more.  

Platform-based thinking needs to become a movement, because platforms won’t evolve by themselves - rather like Lego blocks […] a platform approach uses interchangeable components to deliver similar but not identical buildings

Construction is not the only industry to suffer problems with the distribution of skills – schools, hospitals and care homes, for example, often struggle to access high-quality people to deliver essential services. But construction delivers a product, not a service, and most industries that deliver products do not suffer construction’s locally based quality control issues. 

Off-site manufacture (OSM) has long been touted as the solution to our industry’s skills and quality control challenges. OSM works for hotels, schools and student accommodation where there is volume and the opportunity to standardise the product, but this is a relatively small market and OSM providers have sized themselves to meet demand. Scale is at the heart of the problem, which is why the introduction of platform-based thinking for the design, manufacture and assembly of buildings could make such a difference to our industry. 

For the uninitiated, product platforms are sets of components that can be configured to allow a range of similar but different products (such as buildings) to be delivered from the same system – rather like Lego blocks. Volkswagen, Audi, Seat and Skoda cars all share the same platform but are very different, serving different markets at different prices. Rather than building schools using modules or in-situ construction, a platform approach uses interchangeable components such as wall panels and plumbing assemblies, as well as volumetric solutions, to deliver similar but not identical buildings. Product platforms enable R&D to be concentrated on a smaller range of components and component interfaces and help simplify design and assembly.

This is all very well, but construction’s problem has always been uncertain demand – not only because it is cyclical, but also because it is so fragmented. Why have five or 10 wall systems when you can choose from dozens?  While this diversity works well at the top end, the results are less satisfactory when the basic skills to design, install and supervise aren’t in place.

Construction is not the only industry to suffer problems with the distribution of skills […] but construction delivers a product, not a service, and most industries that deliver products do not suffer construction’s locally based quality control issues 

Accordingly, the initiative taken by government to adopt a presumption in favour of off-site manufacture is a most welcome development – particularly as it will be rolled out in parallel with the construction sector deal. Rather like the BIM mandate, the presumption provides the opportunity for the public-sector client to use demand to shape the market. 

The opportunities are huge. Not only can productivity be increased by greater use of component manufacture, but components can be manufactured with more in-built intelligence, such as RFID tracking tags or smart sensors. What’s more, the new jobs can go where they are needed, not where labour is scarce.

So, for 2018, my resolution is to promote platform-based thinking as a solution – even if the products are not necessarily available just yet. Platform-based thinking needs to become a movement, because platforms won’t evolve by themselves. Clients will have a key role in coalescing around common ways of specifying their projects and their outcomes, so they can be delivered using component-based systems. This will accelerate investment in platforms – perhaps by organisations outside the industry. Designers and component manufacturers, meanwhile, need to work more closely to develop the product platforms and configure the components to deliver great solutions. As an increasing share of design work will be automated by computational and generative design tools, using the platform approach will promote the development of high-tech skills needed for the future. Finally, integrated delivery teams will develop new processes and skills that will raise levels of safety, productivity and quality across the industry.

Our clients deserve great service and quality construction, whether they are commissioning the most sophisticated laboratories or the humblest health centre. If we stick to current ways of working, these outcomes will never be assured as access to skills cannot be guaranteed.  The success and productivity of other industries demonstrates that system- and component-based thinking helps focus investment in R&D, plant and skills. This is just the type of thinking needed to get the best out of the sector deal. To be a thoroughly modern industry, construction must get out its platforms in 2018. 

Simon Rawlinson is head of strategic research and insight at Arcadis and a member of the CLC