Are clients and projects embracing the concept of offsite?

Iain-Parker-BW-2019

As we approach the first anniversary of the House of Lords report, written by the Science and Technology Select Committee, that considered whether manufacturing buildings (or components of them) offsite could improve productivity in the construction industry, do we feel we have made progress? And are clients and projects embracing the concept? 

While the industry is notoriously slow at embracing change, largely owing to its size and fragmented state, there are signs of prominent clients and contractors wanting to modernise their approach to delivering buildings.

One of the key challenges in doing so is the culture of the industry. The report was quite damning in places, claiming that “disputes are part-and-parcel” of construction and that risk is often pushed down the line. This isn’t a view of an industry that is open to collaboration – hence the report’s observations about a lack of innovation and low take-up of new ideas. At present, the industry’s behaviour is largely transactional, with lowest cost the defining factor. It is the role of the professional team to encourage a broader definition of value in the construction process, which will aid in the uptake of offsite manufacture and modern methods of construction.

A certain level of standardisation remains crucial, in a similar way to the use of a single chassis for very different end products in the automotive industry. This would help reduce risk and ensure that products can be assembled easily on site. It’s a similar story with a kit of parts approach, which has been used successfully across elements such as toilet pods and MEP risers and is becoming increasingly widespread. But there is room for improvement and as an industry we should share success stories more, to learn and encourage greater use of this approach. 

It would also be nice to see the use of modular construction incentivised through grants or tax relief, particularly in the residential sector. With demand for housing increasing with every report that gets published, we should be making steps to facilitate delivery, rather than constricting it.

There may well still be a poor public perception of modular construction, but greater take-up and exposure to high-quality buildings constructed offsite will soon change that – as shifting attitudes in several places in Europe have proved. Key to this is encouraging people with a variety of skills into the industry. A move away from on-site trades to “skilled logistics operatives” could help dismiss stereotypes about construction and attract more people to the sector. On a recent trip to Australia to visit a well-established offsite builder, it was clear that the skills and training they employed were more akin to the automotive industry rather than traditional construction – and they have been doing it for a while now, successfully. 

Key to the adoption of offsite manufacture is the assumption that digital design and construction will be normalised. On projects where a genuinely digital design approach has been embraced, it has cultivated a culture of early decision-making and collaboration between the project team. Digital ways of working, such as BIM, can help to create an environment for offsite manufacture to take hold, and create a “golden thread” of accountability in the delivery of projects. Designers need to design with offsite manufacture in mind, meaning early decisions and engagement with the supply chain to consider offsite methods and requirements.

There are some positive signs of the industry embracing offsite manufacture, but there is still plenty of room for further improvement so let’s keep up the momentum.

Iain Parker is a partner in Alinea

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