Contractor’s technical director says space shortages and client demands will lead to shift

The next generation of skyscrapers could be pieced together almost entirely from off-site production lines, according to Laing O’Rourke’s group technical director Paul Westbury.

Speaking to Building at the Ecobuild event in London last week, Westbury said the acute lack of space in city centres such as London, as well as clients’ increasing awareness of off-site techniques, could “pull” developers towards taking up the construction method.

He said: “Take the logistics of a really tight city centre site, how on earth are you supposed to build traditionally when there’s almost no room or space for a traditional site compound or laydown areas or logistics space?

“The idea that you manufacture things off-site and lift it off with a crane - it’s the only way you could attempt to build it. Restrictions on lorry loads coming into London, emissions targets, targets on [reducing] people movement… it is all trending in that [off-site] direction.”

Laing O’Rourke has invested heavily in its off-site capability in recent years, including in its design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) factory in the Midlands.

The contractor extensively used the method when building developer British Land’s Leadenhall Tower (pictured), better known as ‘the Cheesegrater’. Up to 85% of the skyscraper was built using some form of off-site production, Westbury said.

He added: “More and more clients are asking for different methods of construction. They are starting to pull on us to change. They are looking at traditional methods of construction and saying ‘I don’t want that any more’. They want better standards and higher certainty around the holy grail of cost, schedule and quality.

“There’s a huge appetite to do it but because firms do not have a manufacturing business in-house they are finding it difficult to keep going, the supply chain is really fragmented.”

However, Laing O’Rourke’s commitment to off-site has come at a financial cost. In Laing O’Rourke plc’s last set of accounts for the year to March 2016 the division - which cover’s the firm’s operations in Europe, Canada and Abu Dhabi - admitted it had racked up £43m of contract losses on three jobs carried out by its DfMA business.

But the firm remains committed to off-site construction, saying in its accounts: “These projects were substantially redesigned in order to demonstrate the benefits of DfMA. Significant lessons have been learned.”

Separately it emerged last week that Laing O’Rourke is in talks to sell a small pre-cast concrete factory in Uddingston, Scotland, to Northern Ireland-based manufacturer FP McCann.

The Uddingston factory produces products under Laing O’Rourke’s Bison brand. If the deal goes ahead 50 employees will transfer to 1,500-strong FP McCann.

Laing O’Rourke’s Bison brand and its other Swadlincote plant in Derbyshire will be unaffected.