One year on from Mark Farmer’s Modernise or Die report and there is still a large degree of nervousness in the industry
In October last year Mark Farmer’s straight-talking report Modernise or Die highlighted that the construction industry is in “inexorable decline”, with a labour shortage and increasing construction costs. So, one year on, have we seen any significant shifts towards Farmer’s recommendations? Are we using offsite techniques and modern methods of construction (MMC), or are we just carrying on with the same old traditional approaches?
Realistically, one year is not a long time in this industry. That said, more attention is being paid to offsite construction and it is now becoming a key topic in discussions on the UK’s housing crisis. We have seen an increase in political backing, with the publication of the Housing White Paper earlier this year and the London Assembly report “Designed, Sealed, Delivered”, which recommends offsite construction as a key solution to homes shortages. Even our new housing minister, Alok Sharma, recently said that “the benefits are clear” for MMC.
Are we using offsite techniques and modern methods of construction (MMC), or are we just carrying on with the same old traditional approaches?
As an industry we have made strides in flying the flag for offsite construction. At Ramboll we are increasingly deploying this approach in projects such as Dalston Works, a recently completed 10-storey cross laminated timber (CLT) residential building, Swan Housing modular CLT house schemes in Essex, and similarly in precast concrete solutions in high-rise schemes such as Merano.
However, there is still a large degree of nervousness – hardly surprising given the traditional nature of construction. Developers and contractors are reverting to the tried and tested methods of the past and waiting for the industry to mature before taking “bold” steps. So how can we enact change in a meaningful way?
In my view, we need to clearly demonstrate the benefits of offsite construction early in the design process. Otherwise projects develop in such a way that it quickly becomes discounted. Using new digital design tools can allow us to make these informed decisions much earlier on in the process. If we fail to design for offsite methods, we will never see the full benefit of them. Time compression is key; if we can do this in both the design, through digital design tools, and then in construction, through offsite techniques, both clients and developers will see real value.
Farmer’s rather vivid analogy of the construction industry as a burning platform is becoming a reality
We also need wider industry acceptance. Standardised approaches and design codes for specific offsite programmes (such as those in Denmark) will avoid the risk of small cottage industries where a supplier could go bust. Government financial incentives would be welcomed, although we do not want to rely on subsidies to prove viability.
With this in mind, where could we be in another year, or even five? Farmer’s rather vivid analogy of the construction industry as a burning platform is becoming a reality. With so much political instability as Brexit approaches, we could see significant labour shortages and construction price inflation. In order to face these realities and solve increasing housing shortages we really do need to embrace offsite construction methods. If we don’t, we will find ourselves in real trouble as the platform starts to disappear.