Okay, we can all stop worrying about whether off-site techniques will ever be taken seriously as a construction method, or whether anybody outside housebuilding has even heard of it... The real question now is whether the industry is ready to take advantage of all those off-site opportunities – the Olympics, Design for Manufacture, NHS treatment centres, affordable housing…

Off-site construction is on the starting blocks. It has been through the trials, reckons it has proved its worth on sites around the country, and now it is going for gold. Ask manufacturers in the sector to name the best opportunity for off-site in the near future, and they will cite the string of projects coming up for the London 2012 Olympics.

“It should be an exemplar off-site opportunity,” says Darren Richards, managing director with off-site consultant Mtech Group. “The Olympic village can tap into all the work that has been done in using off-site construction for keyworker housing. There is the possibility to have a field factory. Buildings could be permanent or temporary.”

Richard Ogden, chairman of new industry body Buildoffsite, agrees: “It is a tremendous opportunity for our sector, and we are about to look at where the opportunities will be, not only for off-site but for re-locatable buildings.”

The Olympics could mark the next phase in the evolution of off-site construction (see box). Through the 1990s it was private sector businesses such as fast-food chain McDonald’s and airports operator BAA that championed and promoted its use. Now, their lead is being followed by NHS trusts and housing associations.

Health, housing and education have become big industry users of off-site construction, thanks to the mighty push being given by government programmes and initiatives. As one off-site sector leader put it: “Tony Blair has been good for off-site construction.”

Buildoffsite’s Ogden recognises the part that the government has played, but is keen to put it into context. He says: “The government has got behind off-site. Their contribution has been important to the evolution of off-site, but it won’t change the entire construction industry. What they’ve done is provide seedcorn that will hopefully demonstrate the benefits of off-site construction to others and encourage crossover.”

But the key questions for the future of off-site construction are exactly where, apart from the Olympics, will that seedcorn be going, and how could that crossover happen?

The healthcare sector’s demand for more facilities, getting them in fast, and often around existing buildings, has long made it an obvious market for off-site. Pressure within the NHS to hit targets and cut waiting lists has added momentum and generated new initiatives, such as the government’s treatment centre programme which is aiming to reduce waiting lists for basic operations with a national network of specialist treatment centres (see box, page 15). Modular building manufacturer Yorkon has just completed a £9m treatment centre in Shepton Mallet and is now working on a second £6m project in Portsmouth. “Health is the biggest sector for us,” says Keith Blanshard, director and general manager with Yorkon. “The key factor is not just having the ability to make a module, but to be able to design a building for a specific purpose. The two are coming together now.”

The government’s 15-year Building Schools for the Future programme to rebuild secondary schools could be a big source of work for anyone involved in off-site construction, reckons James Pickard, director with Cartwright Pickard Architects. “It has real potential,” he says. “There seems to be a realisation in the BSF programme that there isn’t enough money to knock down existing schools and build new everywhere.” Instead school clients are likely to look increasingly to refurbishment and extension of existing facilities, a move that will bring with it issues like decanting and use of an existing school site, where off-site construction could provide ready solutions.

Within the affordable housing sector the government’s promotion of off-site has been driven by the Housing Corporation. Contractor Willmott Dixon says it is now using timber frame and steel panel construction for the whole gamut of home types – general needs, special needs, student, and from low-rise to five storey. Increasing use of partnering has also helped the spread of off-site construction within the affordable housing sector, says Brendan Ritchie, innovation director with Willmott Dixon Housing. He says: “Last year all of our work was partnering and that has allowed us to drive the supply chain. Because we’ve got a limited number of partners we are not re-inventing the wheel.” The contractor has now gone a stage further and established a “buying club” whereby clients can opt to source modular bathrooms from its key suppliers, and achieve cost economies.

Such innovations are associated with public sector housing, and yet this is a clear example of where the government is now giving the private sector confidence to invest. Over the past year or so more private sector players have entered the off-site arena, notably Redrow Homes with its Debut range of low-cost steel frame homes, which sell from £49,995. Government regeneration agency English Partnerships has given further encouragement this year with its Design for Manufacture competition, which invited private and public sector housing providers to come up with a house design, using either conventional or off-site construction, that would have an overall build cost of £60,000.

Pickard says: “We are finding that private developers want to do it [use off-site build methods]. It is a question of the supply chain maturing. Over the next five to 10 years there will be a radical shift in how we build low-rise houses. I think brick and block will drop from its present level of 80% to 20%.”

Concerns that manufacturing industry might not have the capacity to cope with a major shift to off-site construction are unfounded, say those within the sector. The UK Timber Frame Association reckons its sector has around 55,000 units a year of available production capacity. “Business is buoyant, but we still have capacity to produce about 2,000 units more per year from our Oxford plant,” says Christine Jones, sales and marketing director with Stewart Milne Timber Systems, which is working on such projects as a 532-unit scheme with Bellway Homes in Stepney, east London and a seven-storey apartment scheme with United House and Network Housing Group housing association in Wembley, east London.

The latter project involves building a 108-unit apartment block to sit over a Sainsbury supermarket car park. “I think this model will be used more,” says Colin Dixon, managing director of United House, highlighting supermarkets’ surface-level car parks as another potential and largely untapped market for off-site construction. And perhaps United House itself points the way ahead. Its contracting arm is using timber frame for affordable housing at the same time as its upmarket residential development arm, Modern City Living, is using bathroom pods to give its City pads a top-quality finish. That seedcorn seems to be growing.

Off-site opportunity: Treatment centres

The government's treatment centre programme aims to cut waiting lists and improve patient access to services, by establishing a network of local centres to deal with basic treatments such as cataract removal and hip and knee replacement. The government expects there to be 80 treatment centres by the end of this year. So far there are 35 NHS-run treatment centres already open and 11 more in development. There are also about 16 treatment centres run by the independent sector.

Off-site opportunity: Design for Manufacture

Mainstream housebuilding industry’s interest in off-site construction has grown as a result of English Partnerships’ Design for Manufacture competition.

The competition, which set a build budget of £60,000 for a house, did not demand the use of off-site construction methods – in fact, no particular construction supply, procurement, materials or delivery techniques were required under the competition brief. Nevertheless, many entrants saw this as a chance to demonstrate to the government that they could innovate, increase efficiency, and keep build costs down, and all the second-stage winners (which were announced in August) have off-site technology on their menu of build methods.

The nine second-stage winners, and their chosen build methods, are:

Barratt Developments (pictured)
Being developed by: Barratt Developments Advance Housing with Terrapin. Design by HTA Architects. RSL: Midsummer HABuild technology: Modular pod and panel construction

Countryside Consortium
Being developed by: a consortium of Countryside Properties, Hyde Group, Acton Housing Association, Metropolitan Housing Trust and Presentation. Partners include PCKO Architects, Walker Management, Buma Free-Dom Polska, The Homes Factory.Build technology: Light steel volumetric and open panel timber frame

Geoffrey Osborne
Being developed by: Geoffrey Osborne, with Baily Garner and Innovare SystemsBuild technology: Structural insulated panels, open panel timber frame, floor cassettes, warm roof, traditional brickGeorge WimpeyBeing developed by: George Wimpey, with Richard Rogers Partnership, Guildway, MetekBuild technology: Closed panel timber frame, light steel frame

Northern Edge
Being developed by: Three Rivers Housing Group with Yorkshire Housing Group, South Yorkshire Housing Association, Tees Valley Housing Group. Working with Mackellar Architects, Atelier Ten, Urban Salon, Metek, Van Elle, Gross MaxBuild technology: Volumetric with steel floor systems

Redrow Homes
Build technology: Light steel frame

Sixtyk consortium
Being developed by: consortium of Crest Nicholson and Kingspan. Partners include Sheppard Robson, Davis Langdon, Arup, McFarlane WilderBuild technology: timber frame, cold-rolled steel frame and structural insulated panels.

Being developed by: Westbury Homes working with its Space 4 manufacturing facility and Stewart Milne. Design is by Broadway MalyanBuild technology: Closed panel timber frame, open panel structural insulated panels, Thermalite thin-joint blockwork

William Verry
Being developed by: William Verry with WeberHausBuild technology: modular closed panel timber frame

  • The stage-three winners will be announced at the end of the year. In all, the winners will develop 1000 homes across 10 sites

    Off-site opportunity: the Olympics

    In the immediate wake of the 2012 Olympic win, people have already started asking where the skills will be found to build all the ambitious structures planned for Stratford, east London. The answer to that question could well be: in the factory.Creating the Olympic facilities will generate a stream of construction projects and the facilities offer the potential for use of all types of off-site technology. Permanent facilities include: the £254m Olympic stadium, a £26m velodrome, a £121m international broadcasting centre, a £66m aquatics centre, plus the £590m Olympic village itself. The village will house 4000 athletes, and the upcoming Stratford City development will provide a proportion of the living space for the athletes. It is also estimated that 2000 hotel bedspaces will be needed for visitors.