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Get Fit For Brexit: Offsite Construction and the ‘Platforms’ Approach

18th November 2020

Home » Barbour ABI Blog » Get Fit For Brexit: Offsite Construction and the ‘Platforms’ Approach

Written by Damon Schünmann, Strategic Consultant at Barbour ABI

It’s generally accepted that offsite construction and DfMA (design for manufacture and assembly) offer leaner construction in a precision factory environment with better health and safety credentials and less wastage. But while on the one hand they haven’t yet been widely embraced, on the other the landscape is constantly evolving – with knock on effects for both those that have adopted them as well as those that haven’t. In this fourth article on how businesses can streamline themselves in unchartered waters, Barbour ABI looks at how these relatively recent disruptors are shaping the market and what they have to offer.

Jaimie Johnston is a board director and head of global systems at architect Bryden Wood. Interestingly, the practice has made a name for itself not just by embracing the principles of DfMA, but unusually for an architect, by also helping to pioneer new construction and assembly techniques to demonstrate the effectiveness of trail-blazing processes.

Johnston is vehement that the main reason for finding leaner ways of working should be the environmental imperative over efficiency.

“The amount of stuff we’ve got to build [due to population growth] over the next 30 years is absolutely astronomical,” he says. “Given that construction contributes about 40% of carbon emissions, with increased urbanisation and the speed we’ve got to build, we’ve got a completely broken system and yet we have to build at a rate no-one’s ever seen before. We’ve got to build one and half times the UK every year for 30 years just to sort out city populations. There’s a disconnect between the need to build and our ability to.”

He continues: “If we don’t fundamentally change the way we build we will just increase the carbonisation problem, we’ll do a worse job of design, we’ll deliver poorer performing infrastructure and we’ll accelerate the climate crisis. My personal view is that construction will decide the fate of humanity over the next 30 years. There’s all this stuff like [problems with] productivity and the skills gap in the background, but people aren’t looking enough at the big picture.”

Is Offsite the Answer?

One of the big industry mind-set shifts of the last few years has been towards offsite construction. Also referred to as volumetric modular, this sees the offsite manufacture and assembly of substantial but transportable pre-assembled modules for buildings.

But Johnston believes offsite construction, by itself, isn’t the silver bullet. “If you go back to the 2017 autumn budget statement, what the government said is we want to increase the cost effectiveness, productivity and timeliness of projects by using our spending power to promote modern methods of construction such as offsite. But the later bit of text about the presumption in favour of offsite, that’s the part everyone’s latched onto. One of the blockers is that people have closed down the debate and said, ‘right you’ve said offsite’. If offsite is your success criteria, then that would drive volumetric modular [processes].”

Far from dismissing it, he believes it’s just part of the solution. “It will play a part for sure but people have latched onto it because it’s a simple mental picture. What we’ve found actually is that it’s not appropriate for lots of things. If you were driving carbon [reduction] for instance, you’ve doubled up the [steel] columns and the tops and bottoms, then you transport this big heavy thing and then you’ve over-engineered it for lifting.”

“It will play a part for sure but people have latched onto it because it’s a simple mental picture. What we’ve found actually is that it’s not appropriate for lots of things.”

But part of the solution – where appropriate – it nevertheless remains, and Johnston says one reason preventing a wider industry rollout for offsite construction is the investment required. “Volumetric modular has a massive barrier to entry – you need [substantial capital expenditure] to buy and setup a factory, get a pipeline in place and get a product developed. That’s quite a risky game and it limits the amount of players that can make that step.

A leading advocate of industry evolution is Mark Farmer, CEO and founding director of Cast Consultancy. He’s also the author of the 2016 Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model, commonly known as the Modernise or Die report that advocates offsite solutions.

He tackles the issue of how businesses can get involved with the move to offsite construction. “If you’re in that new entrant [to offsite] space you have to be capitalised, there’s no two ways about it,” he says. “If you want to use offsite manufacturing you have to realise that’s a significant investment and that’s why there’s not many of them around. Those that are entering the market tend to have backers; you can’t go to it half-heartedly.”

While Farmer acknowledges this obviously isn’t a feasible route for all businesses, he does offer advice on what those other organisations can be doing. “For the balance of the industry that is struggling with that [and saying] ‘how do I realistically make a move towards embracing offsite without having to spend shedloads of money, the reality is understanding how you engage differently in the supply chain,” he says.

“This whole move to offsite is an existential threat to the Tier 1 [contractor] model that manages hugely complex and fragmented onsite delivery through subcontracted arrangements. As you start consolidating and increasing pre-manufactured value, the effect is that there’s less to manage. Some contractors feel threatened by that, but others have realised it’s a way of de-risking their position and making more money if they’re smart about it.”

“Some contractors feel threatened by that, but others have realised it’s a way of de-risking their position and making more money if they’re smart about it.”

Offsite Doesn’t Just Mean Modular

He says there is a market creep in this direction already. “The way I see that playing out is that some Tier1s are trying to get closer to the offsite market. Everyone assumes [that by offsite) you mean modular as being the default position, but it’s a very small part of the solution. Most contractors are looking at the proportion of the building that they can get manufactured and still put it together onsite as a combination of sub-assemblies and pre-assembled components.”

Farmer says these businesses are looking to take person hours out of the job but realise it still needs a contractor to manage the project in an easier way, with less risk of things going wrong. “I see a lot of contractors moving into that incremental space of using more manufactured elements, whether it’s bathroom pods, utility cupboards, pre-manufactured M&E or unitised facades – they’re doing it under the radar,” he says.

“The move to offsite which everyone thinks is about modular in the sense of a whole box being craned into site for an apartment or house is actually a very small proportion of how MMC [modern methods of construction] is being deployed. If you’re an existing consultant, contractor or subcontractor, what part of the market do you need to get engaged with? It’s the whole hybrid range of MMC components that you can be embedding into normal projects.

“The move to offsite which everyone thinks is about modular in the sense of a whole box being craned into site for an apartment or house is actually a very small proportion of how MMC [modern methods of construction] is being deployed.”

“You can go on a much more graduated journey to increasing your pre-manufactured value, getting to know the supply chain, creating relationships, understanding technical performance and how it goes together onsite so you can translate that into programme benefit. One of the big barriers is people don’t know enough about it so they’re reticent to experiment. But those businesses that are out there doing stuff are going through that learning curve as we speak.

According to Johnston, one of the issues preventing new ways of thinking from getting a head of steam is sector intransience.

“Another blocker [for the widespread adoption of new building techniques] for the industry is that everyone is very sector focussed,” he says. “People concentrate on the differences between construction sectors. If you’re a healthcare person you say ‘you can’t understand the world of healthcare, stay out of it’ and residential goes ‘no it’s so complex, keep away from resi’. But you’ve all got 8m spans, you’ve all got 3.5m floor to floor heights – we’re looking for the commonalities between sectors because that’s where you start to identify where the pipeline really is. The fact that people consider every sector to be its own little world creates all these barriers where people are only looking at the scale of pipeline within their own [sector].”

“The fact that people consider every sector to be its own little world creates all these barriers where people are only looking at the scale of pipeline within their own [sector].”

A Potential Solution

Johnston is also ‘Platform’ design lead with the government funded Construction Innovation Hub and through this collaboration he has been trying to establish the centre of the Venn diagram for the built assets that are delivered in different sectors. The goal here is the Platforms approach which follows that if construction ‘kits’ of commonly used components can be delivered to projects, regardless of the construction market they might be in, they can then be assembled onsite by relatively unskilled local labour.

Quite aside from the potential programme, productivity and environmental savings of leaner construction, Johnston is keen to point out another benefit. He explains that by using local labour, rather than transient operatives that are continually working away from home, it would help alleviate some of the widely publicised mental health issues within the industry that are exacerbated by individuals being separated from their support networks.

Trudi Sully is Impact Director at the Hub and she explains that its four-year funded programme is intended to act as a catalyst for transforming construction and to move forward the government’s commitment to procure through offsite methodologies. “We’re here to help the industry, not tell it what to do,” she says. “A lot of it is about challenging current practices and shaping how we work together to achieve that transformation.” Sully says that an important element of this is moving the goal posts of government procurement.

“It’s shifting to value based decisions, from cost being the primary driver,” she says, adding that the Hub aims to measure the benefits of things such as the Platforms approach to the industry in areas such as speed of delivery, materials savings and local employment.

“A lot of it is about challenging current practices and shaping how we work together to achieve that transformation.”

The Importance of Building-overlap

Johnston tells Barbour ABI what underpins the Hub’s Platforms approach. “At the ‘hub’ we’ve been trying to analyse the entire government estate and in every sector we’ve looked at, less than 50% of any one is [genuinely] sector-specific,” he says. “In education you’ve obviously got classrooms that are quite standardised anyway, [but then you’ve got] circulation, plant rooms, canteens, offices, sports halls that aren’t really sector-specific [in terms of design and components].”

“It’s the same in every sector we’ve looked at. In healthcare, for sure there are loads of quite specific spaces, but there’s also a lot of generic circulation space, plant space, waiting space, corridor space [and so on],” says Johnston. “If you start to break those down and look for common spans, common air change rates, lighting levels and acoustic performance, at a DNA level most government buildings are quite similar. If you can start to understand that and develop components that would be used across loads of sectors, that’s how you get to the level of repeatability and [an increased pipeline]. He says that with volumetric modular, an offsite manufacturer tends to be making a school classroom or a two bed house and this limits their applicability which is why he feels the industry is struggling to understand or achieve success with this approach.

Johnston says one of the advantages of the Platforms approach is it gets around the investment and risk barriers for entry that come with volumetric modular.

“The stuff we’re doing on Platforms where we’re using steel from Tata, concrete from Aggregate Industries and brackets that [a normal supply chain] could make – we’re trying to harness existing capabilities and ways of working at a much more granular level,” he says. “We’re saying ‘you don’t need a big bank and a factory, you could start to leverage existing things you’re doing’. We’re trying to use Platforms to lower that barrier for entry and make it a much more easily adopted thing.”

To round things off, Farmer adds a note of support, but also one of caution. “I think Platforms has got huge potential where you’ve got aggregated clients [such as] for government, where it’s building schools, hospitals, prisons and transportation assets. It’s an obvious route to go down where you’ve got a single client dictating design principles and the way the procurement happens. If you want to make platforms design the basis of how you want to build [those kinds of assets] you can do that.” But he does underline his belief that for it to work successfully in fragmented markets, such as residential, it would require clients getting together to ask for the same things to drive the scale needed for commercial success.

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