ISG’s Debbie Hobbs picks out the latest jargon that says so much about rapidly evolving building practices
Eagle-eyed observers may have detected a linguistic transformation that is happening among many of our construction leaders and industry commentators. I first detected this amplification phenomenon at the start of the year, through conversations with many of our customers and supply chain partners, recognising a discernible increase in the frequency of terms relating to modern methods of construction (MMC) – the catch-all vessel describing smarter building practices.
In an acronym rich industry, our vocabulary is expanding with the rise in prominence of DfMA (design for manufacture and assembly) and even P-DfMA (a Platform approach for Design for Manufacture and Assembly). Talk of standard component design principles is increasingly commonplace and even volumetric design has been dusted down and is raising its head once more.
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This is a good thing. In fact, I’ll go further, this is crucial to how our industry articulates its future trajectory. This is how we can drive change, be masters of our own destiny and avoid having change imposed upon us through circumstance. There is a caveat to this of course, and its directly related to the language of MMC, and more crucially the general understanding of what it is, and what it is not.
Despite the fact that “offsite construction” is widely adopted and embedded in construction practice, we are still very much in the foothills of this next generation of design, manufacture and assembly philosophy. Government is once again providing the stimulus to this approach, in much the same way it did for BIM adoption, and ISG is in the thick of it all as an “ecosystem consultant” on the Construction Innovation Hub’s Platform Design Programme. We have also been at the heart of a programme to develop a standard component design for the DfE, recently delivering our first school that has embraced this new methodology.
Are we doing enough behind the scenes to concisely articulate the benefits?
There’s clearly a lot going on at the moment, as the lexicon of construction is starting to evolve, but amongst all these emerging phrases and acronyms – are we doing enough behind the scenes to concisely articulate the benefits of this new strategy, are we able to measure and demonstrate its efficacy and, crucially, are we going far enough?
Let’s take the first of those points – and I think the jury is out on how we describe this new construction revolution. People understand a bathroom pod or a modular building – it’s a tangible element. Try doing the same with a standard component design approach, and it’s potentially not so easy. We must all work hard to create a simple and compelling narrative around these often complex collaborations, that we know, through direct experience, can deliver outstanding results.
On the measurement question, there is now a general consensus that things cannot carry on as before, and we all need to be accountable for the performance of the buildings we create, not only for our paying customers, but also in the context of the wider environmental debate and those looming 2050 net zero targets. We’re currently working hard to develop a universal solution that should directly address this issue, and we confidently expect the market to move in the same direction as independently verifiable performance data from buildings becomes a statutory requirement.
Are we going far enough? I’m not sure we are – and I think what we’re missing is a “D” from our beloved acronyms. D for deconstruction. As a strong advocate of circular economy principles, we must not forget to place the same care and focus on deconstructing the structures we are building. Some of the smartest work that we are doing at the moment is looking at components and systems with our supply chain partners and product manufacturers, to retain the value and onward usability of materials. Creating material passports within our infinitely updateable BIM models and seeking out high-performing products and components that have the same emphasis on circularity as we do.
There is much to be excited about as our industry evolves, the language of construction is already changing and this has a direct consequence on how our sector is viewed. We only have to look at our car manufacturing cousins to see what this has done for the recruitment and retention of talent. We must also be mindful at this critical stage – this is a radical transformation in how we build and we should not be careless in how we describe this approach, or limit our ambitions for what it can deliver.
Debbie Hobbs, group director for sustainable business at ISG