A raft of sector initiatives are now working together to create real change, write Trudi Sully and Mark Farmer 

Much of the construction transformation journey that we have been on for the last few years has been focused on identifying the basic building blocks of change and setting out a roadmap for how we can do what the industry has repeatedly failed to do in the past - embrace modernisation and improvement on a large scale and sustainable basis.

Trudi Sully and Mark Farmer2

The construction sector deal gives us a good springboard for change and identifies the basic themes of core improvement across digital, manufacturing and asset performance while also highlighting the key enablers such as procurement and future skills.

The establishment of the Construction Innovation Hub (the Hub), the largest single recipient of government funding from the sector deal, as a catalyst for change, is a vital ingredient for making transformation a reality with a particular emphasis on the directly procuring central government departments. With the more recent addition of the construction playbook to the mix, things are starting to come together that bode well for the future.

The Hub’s core workstreams of digital, manufacturing, assurance and value closely map to the original sector deal narrative. They also align with the objectives of both the CLC’s roadmap and construction playbook. In addition, Hub programme outputs are already being tested with government departments and the market.

We must guard against ending up with a cottage industry of small unique offerings, or a market overly reliant on a few major players

At the same time, an unrelenting campaign to raise industry awareness has been building steam across both the public and private sector. The “modernise or die” mantra has been rammed home ruthlessly since 2016 and in response, at variable levels of engagement, industry and its clients have started to go on their own journeys towards exploring modern methods of construction (MMC) and application of manufacturing approaches resulting in measurable benefits.

Covid-19 has perhaps only accelerated that urgency to reduce reliance on-site labour and move in-situ construction to more of an assembly process. This has been amplified by the increasingly serious risks of traditional labour availability and direction of regulatory changes on building quality and decarbonisation.

One of the central planks of the transformation journey is the move to a more sustainable, less fragmented industry. Key to this will be ensuring that MMC supply chains are underpinned by scale-based economic models and finally addressing the predilection we continue to have with designing every project as a proto-type. We must guard against ending up with a cottage industry of small unique offerings, or a market overly reliant on a few major players.

Addressing this challenge can clearly start with government leadership in how they commission their own assets, whether those be schools, hospitals or prisons. The political drive to “build, build, build” in response to the pandemic means we have the chance to use public infrastructure spending wisely and for long term outcomes.

The Hub’s development of a platform rulebook in close partnership with industry for platform construction systems builds on and supports the IPA’s consultation on Platform Design for Manufacture (P-DfMA) and the ambitions of the construction playbook. Together, these will enable a kit of parts that can be aggregated against government programmes supporting a transformation of supply chains and the role of the various actors in adding value and indeed everyone making more money in exchange for that.

The Hub identifies a potential £35bn public sector pipeline which could be delivered in whole, or in part, using platform solutions

The key is ensuring that value is indeed the driver and that this is not just repackaging the wholesale waste and inefficiency that exists in our industry with another, more expensive wrapper on it. The economic imperative has to be that more margin is funded from delivery efficiency not a race to the bottom of “cheapness“ without the means to achieve capital cost reduction. While pounds and pence remain an important consideration and are recognised as such in the Value Toolkit, cost must not be the sole driver of decision-making. This drive for a wider approach to value is front and centre in the construction playbook.

The second major hurdle to overcome is how moving to a standardised and open-source platform supply chain is actually going to happen once you put the thinking out there for all to use.

To prevent a situation where hundreds of unsustainable proprietary kit of part platforms just co-exist with hundreds of unsustainable proprietary MMC systems, government could, for example, use its own commissioning behaviour as set out in the playbook to create one version of the truth for its own assets. The Hub’s platform rulebook will support clients and industry by offering standardised mechanisms for delivering high-quality demand-driven assets, while supporting a competitive market.

We must remain mindful of the need to aggregate those markets that sit outside huge centrally procured government infrastructure programmes. This is highly relevant to the housing sector (remember the central government does not build homes) and wider private commercial construction for instance.

It’s important that we recognise that the reshaping and aggregation of hugely fragmented client-side markets stands between the theory of P-DfMA and the real-world route to any at scale application outside of central public programmes. The Hub will soon share analysis, showing a significant commonality and convergence between so many aspects of the buildings which creates the theoretical case for platform alignment. The Hub analysis also identifies a potential £35bn public sector pipeline which could be delivered in whole, or in part, using platform solutions.

Despite the challenges of embedding such significant change, the principles of standardisation are still very much applicable outside of the public sector. Non-centralised markets will, however, require a shift in behaviour supported with a tangible benefits case.

MHCLG will soon test appetite and define principles of how standardisation might work in the residential market

That shift should ensure that the existing market continues to function and that individual clients gradually act more cohesively and collaboratively to achieve “borrowed scale” while respecting their needs to compete or differentiate. We also want to avoid damaging investment from those innovative leaders who, in the absence of harmonised rules protocols, have already pioneered change and have developed high quality proprietary kit of parts platforms and consolidated systems. They will form an important part of any new eco-system and we should acknowledge that with any large-scale innovation, there will always be some degree of creative tension.

This sensitive and pragmatic journey to wider transformation is critical. In the housing sector you will see MHCLG soon initiate some market engagement with the sector to test appetite and define principles of how standardisation might work in residential. This will be aligned to the ambitions of the planning white paper and look to ensure the maturity and shape of the residential MMC market is respected, while setting out a roadmap to higher productivity working, a more diverse market and building greener, safer, better quality homes.

The coming period sees a great opportunity to meld transforming construction principles, spanning the sector deal, the Hub’s transformative programme and the over-arching role of the Construction Leadership Council with the housing and private commercial sector specific recommendations from the Modernise or Die report. By working together, we can achieve our common ambition – to deliver long lasting positive change in how we deliver construction across all asset classes and in the outcomes we create.

Mark Farmer is founding director and chief executive of Cast Consultancy, while Trudi Sully is impact director for manufacturing at the Construction Innovation Hub