In the 1980s Richard Ogden played a key role in trailblazing the use of off-site construction for a certain fast-food chain. Now he’s the first chairman of Buildoffsite, connecting burgeoning demand for new construction techniques with supply.

Richard Ogden used to work for McDonald’s. Not multinational Mott MacDonalds or even MacDonald Building Contractors of Margate, but the McDonald’s with the golden arches. Many may not realise it, but the fast-food burger chain became an acknowledged trailblazer in the application of off-site construction to build restaurants in record-breaking timescales, and Ogden played a key part in making that happen.

Now Ogden has been appointed the first chairman of Buildoffsite, the brand new government/industry-sponsored organisation set up to work with and promote the off-site construction sector. Blazing a trail is on the agenda once again. Ogden says: “I am intent on engaging all parts of the industry in my plans – clients, contractors, manufacturers, designers and researchers – to form a network of members who think in an holistic way. Buildoffsite will drive residential, retail, commercial and industrial construction in both the private and public sectors into a step change using the mechanics of off-site construction.”

Ogden’s enthusiasm is going to be critical to meeting the goals Buildoffsite has set itself. He talks of the off-site sector as a cottage industry, something in its infancy, as opposed to the behemoth that is construction. And he acknowledges that unless the off-site construction sector grows, it can never hope to make an impact. “Off-site techniques account for a £2bn spend in a £100bn market. We are small, but our aim is to double this figure by 2010 and increase it 10-fold by 2020.”

Ogden’s career with McDonald’s illustrates how to get the best out of off-site construction. Starting as an apprentice within Balfour Beatty’s civil engineering section, Ogden switched to construction on the advice of a college lecturer, and there began his love affair with building things. “I love doing, organising, making,” Ogden beams, “and construction is as big a challenge as it gets.”

In the mid-1970s, after gaining his construction spurs in the public sector, Ogden looked to broaden his wings, first taking a contract manager’s role with Ladbrokes and subsequently, in 1980, becoming the 34th employee of the newly formed McDonald’s Restaurants UK. This was no desperate stop-gap burger flipping job, but an appointment as project manager to the US giant’s fledgling British-built portfolio. Before long, Ogden had been fast-tracked to vice-president of construction design and then chair of the European construction team. However, as the high interest rates of the Thatcher era started to bite, McDonald’s was not making good returns on its UK-built investment and it called on Ogden for a solution.

“I got together a team of my best staff and we analysed UK construction methods and attitudes. We had to think differently and innovate if we were going to cut costs, so we investigated different construction techniques. We flirted with timber frame, which is heavily used in the US, but at the time UK construction companies weren’t up to the task of delivering us cost savings.

“Then one of the team suggested a firm called Britspace which manufactured steel-frame components. We realised we were on to something and went ahead with the design for a prototype freestanding McDonald’s restaurant building. This was when we realised that not only could we speed up the shell construction but everything else as well.”

Ogden and his team honed their prototype until they could deliver a building to site in modules that were 95% complete. E E “Anything that is screwed down is installed before being delivered to site,” he says. “It was an exciting time. One day, I took an electric kettle into a team meeting and said, ‘look, plug it in and it works. Come back when you can make the services in the modules do that’. The team did it – we invented services that clip together.”

In February 1992 Ogden’s prototype became a reality. The city of Stoke was host to the first prefabricated McDonald’s restaurant. This boxy 6000 ft2 building with a faux-pitched roof was the first of a type that are now instantly recognisable in or around every town and city in the UK.

One day i took an electric kettle into a team meeting and said, ‘look, plug it in and it works. come back when you can make the services in the modules do that’. The team did it – we invented services thatclip together

Ogden didn’t sit back and relish his achievement, though. As important as this new fast-build technique was, it could be improved. Each new restaurant building project was analysed and learnt from. Knowledge was shared across the globe with McDonald’s construction teams in Europe, Argentina and Brazil. Then, in 1995, Ogden got the go-ahead to start a new company in the US. McDonald’s Advanced Building Systems was formed and this British-born building lover began showing the home of the burger how to build its McDonald’s restaurants.

With the freestanding restaurants popping up around the world – 750 every year in Europe – Ogden switched his attention from innovative design to build speed. “The first freestanding restaurant took 30 days to build, but by 1996 we were much faster,” says Ogden. “We took possession of a site in Peterborough and went from greenfield to selling hamburgers in 48 hours.”

People mocked the buildings as cheap and crass but Ogden was immune to the criticism. He and his team debriefed everyone involved after each completion and quietly went on learning how to perfect the art of building off site.

“The key to our success was our willingness to embrace new ideas and technologies and to re-look at ideas and learn from both our successes and mistakes. Off-site techniques will never be at the forefront of creating monumental architecture. But they are the way forward in creating good, cost-effective, workable buildings for many sectors in less time and with less waste.

Off-site construction can provide the best product in terms of first-time quality, adaptability, cost, relocatability, time savings and health and safety.”

Ogden’s construction trailblazing with McDonald’s left him little time for anything else and in 1999, when the Department of Trade and Industry approached him to chair an off-site forum, he declined. But after his retirement, at the age of 56 in 2002, a second knock at the door proved more fruitful. “The DTI came to me to head a three-year research project called prOSPa, a forum to instruct the construction industry on off-site techniques. Eventually, in order to move away from pure research and to reform the project’s intentions, Buildoffsite was born. Using the knowledge base of prOSPa, Buildoffsite connects the demand for new rationalised construction techniques with those who can supply it.”

Ogden realises that there will be resistance to his organisation’s ideas: “There will always be prejudice against off-site techniques because of construction’s deep-rooted history. I am battling against 5000 years of knowledge but I’m not advocating wholesale change. You can’t do off-site without on-site; it is all totally integrated. It is about finding the best solution for each individual project. And this is why the big construction players and clients like Amec, Bovis, BAA, B&Q and Somerfield are involved: because they realise the value of what we are promoting.”

This is not idle rhetoric. Buildoffsite is partly funded by the government but major factors in its creation have been the encouragement, support and financial backing of industry members, both clients and constructors, who realise the importance of taking the industry to the next level and into the 21st century.

Buildoffsite basics

What is Buildoffsite?
It is not a conventional trade body, but a network of members with a common objective, that works with public and private sectors, supply and demand-side partners.

What are its key aims?
It will:

  • speak for the industry to all stakeholders
  • demonstrate the business case for off-site construction
  • set standards for the design, manufacture, and construction process
  • resolve interfaces
  • provide an independent, authoritative source of data
  • provide a forum for discussion of the benefits and challenges
  • inform and educate construction industry professionals

    What specific activities is it engaging in?
    Buildoffsite has already produced a lexicon of off-site construction terminology, which is available on its website. A report, The value of the UK market for offsite, by a research team from Loughborough University, is also available on its website.

    It has a range of other activities on the agenda, including promoting exemplar construction projects where off-site construction has delivered benefits

    Who is involved in Buildoffsite?
    More than 30 organisations have committed to taking part so far.

    Where can I find out more about Buildoffsite?
    Visit the website:

  • Offsite Directory October 2005