Is this the method’s moment, wonders the chairman of specialist modular contractors Reds10

Unprecedented, extraordinary, unparalleled – just a few ways to describe the way the world has changed in the wake of covid-19.

Many construction sites shut down, despite government urges to carry on and the creation of new Site Operating Procedures drawn up by the Construction Leadership Council. Slowly but surely, sites are now reopening. But those that remained open were criticised for putting the health of workers at risk, not least because it is very difficult to achieve social distancing on a busy construction site.

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So, while the short-term impacts of coronavirus are clear to see, what will it mean longer term and how could it impact our built environment? The construction industry has always been a ‘creature of habit’, slow to evolve, but we believe that we are seeing the most convincing catalyst for change in more than a century.

Having been actively promoted by government, heralded as the safer, quicker way to deliver new development and championed by some of the most influential people in our sector, could covid-19 be the event that finally gives rise to modular construction in this country?

Notably, while construction ground to a near halt, modular contractors have not been affected in the same way. At Reds10, we are currently increasing production.

Without the use of less labour-intensive modern methods of construction, we will never be able to provide construction workers with the environment they deserve

There are many reasons why. Modular construction is far less labour intensive, making it easier to ensure safer distancing. Labour is drawn from local communities, so people come together from a smaller geographical area, bringing the added advantage of improving work-life balance for many.

Factory labour also tends to be on the books and therefore less susceptible to the uncertainties that have beset self-employed workers, reducing stress at a time of great concern. And the factory itself brings benefits, because it is by its very nature a controlled environment – more ordered, regimented and process-driven.

While it is fair to say that our industry has made huge improvements in health and safety across traditional construction, with enhanced professionalisation of site management and a focus on worker wellbeing that has never been so strong, the social distancing issue highlights the underlying problem. Without a fundamental shift in the way that buildings are designed and built and without the use of less labour-intensive modern methods of construction, we will never be able to provide construction workers with the environment that they deserve.

We must imagine clients will now insist on covid-19 or equivalent plans and method statements on all future projects

We must also imagine that current working restrictions will last well beyond the current lockdown and that clients will now insist on covid-19 or equivalent plans and method statements on all future projects. Traditional contractors will need to incorporate these measures on site, which will restrict the level of labour on site, change the sequencing of work and push programme out and preliminaries up. Few, if any of these measures will affect off-site factories and contractors.

The reality is that the impact of site closures affects society long after current social distancing measures are removed. New school classrooms will not be ready for the new academic year, much needed hospital wards and diagnostic suites will not be available to replace ageing and unreliable assets and key worker accommodation will not be available.

Off-site construction would not have avoided all disruption of course, but the simple truth is that off-site factories and contractors are still producing buildings and working on site while many traditional construction sites are closed.

The construction industry has the opportunity to seize this unwanted and enforced opportunity to genuinely rethink how things are done, to leverage the very significant advances in off-site construction technology and create a resilient industry that can withstand future pandemics and global emergencies.

Matt Bennion is chairman of design and build modular contractor Reds10