School of Built Environment, Engineering and Computing

The Future is Bright... The Future is Offsite?

Lee Wilkinson from PwC and Liz Schofield from the School of Built Environment explore the rise of offsite construction as a challenge to traditional construction models and ask whether it can really deliver all it promises?

Broadcasting Place

It was October 2016 when Mark Farmer, Co-Chair of Constructing Excellence published his much cited “Modernise or Die” report where he set out the failings of construction’s labour and prevailing business model and challenged the industry to find and unlock drivers for change and embrace modern methods of construction. Modernisation of the industry takes many forms of course, but much noise has been made about the important of developing offsite construction. With offsite potentially having a large part to play in addressing the UK’s housing crisis the industry is now coming together to ensure that its adoption is undertaken in an assured way. But what does it offer the industry that we don’t already have?

The term Offsite Construction covers a broad range of outputs under one common definition; the completion of elements or components of a construction project at a different location to where they will be permanently installed. The construction of a warehouse, a house or even a component involves a number of stages and offsite can impact any part of the process - the planning phase, the build phase and even the design. Immediately, this model presents some significant differences to traditional build models;

  • Skills: We need the right skill in the right role. Traditional construction methods are labour intensive and some believe wasteful too. The workforce is aged and challenged by the net output to the workforce. A different set of skills is required for offsite, the number of individuals required to complete the build is less and the inclusive nature of the factory environment, i.e. everyone on the same site, provides greater opportunity for cross collaboration and quicker onsite training and learning. The ability of delivering projects on-time, on-budget and profitability is a challenge with traditional builds - many factors can make or break a project. It could be argued that offsite is a more controlled environment and the repetitive nature of the builds means that successful projects can be replicated easier. Lean manufacturing elements could also come in to play here, refining the production process leading to marginal gains in both time and long term value.
  • Sustainability: Offsite requires less energy, site wastage is reduced and bulk -buying can reduce the carbon footprint of transportation of materials to, from and across the site.
  • Improved Health and Safety: An offsite factory is a much more predictable setting than the physical construction site, which eliminates the variables of weather and visibility conditions.
  • Less disruption to locals: let’s face it, traditional construction can be a nuiscence to nearby residents, with onsite noise, traffic problems and access being huge issues. Moving construction away from the site and into a dedicated facility reduces much of this impact.

Offsite Construction is nothing new, in fact many of us can still remember learning about probability and calculus in prefabricated classrooms perched next to the playground, but modern offsite methods are about challenging those pre-conceptions and demonstrating that the industry has moved on in leaps and bounds. Currently only 10% of construction output is delivered using offsite (CITB 2017) but things are changing. Companies embracing offsite are reviewing their processes, looking for areas of repetition, areas of high volume and most importantly identifying where quality and output could be improved. This is why housing has become the most visible and fast moving development area of offsite - a house is a house and they all include very similar items and structure which can be easily replicated in a factory environment. Some notable examples in our region include;

  • ILKE Homes are seeking to disrupt the housing market with their modular factory investment near Knaresborough through delivery of high quality, energy-efficient homes;
  • Laing O’Rourke have invested heavily in digital engineering and in manufacturing facilities, anchored by Explore Industrial Park producing building system components in a controlled factory environment, prior to delivery to a construction site for installation;
  • Legal and General Homes have invested heavily in their 550,000 sq.ft factory in Yorkshire (with plans for more) and have ambitious plans to deliver precision engineered homes on an unprecedented scales.
  • Citu are currently building the timber frame homes for the Climate Innovation District in Leeds at an onsite CITU works factory.
  • Urban Splash continue to invest in modern techniques underpinned by the hoUSe concept as well as livable roof-top pods ( see Lister’s Pods, Bradford).

The food & drink sector has been driving this forward for many years. Have you ever wondered how Costa, McDonalds, Aldi and other establishments erect so quickly? To really make modular work as a viable solution means greater collaboration between suppliers and manufacturers – no longer can 50 baths be dropped off on site, they are required continually during the process.

If we look to Japan, the Sekisui House modular factory looks more like a car plant than a construction site. The factory contains around 150 robots, each equipped with an arm that is able to manoeuvre on five different axes, in addition to being capable of spinning around on themselves. The first stage of the process involves robots cutting the panels from which modular frames are constructed. Lengths of steel are picked out by the robots from racks in the factory’s warehouse and brought gliding across to the head of a production line, where the cutting and shaping of the panels begins. The steel sheets are then bolted and welded together to create the cross-braced modules that will be used to make up the new homes. The future? The factory can build 4,000 homes a year.

The government could put in place measures to further enhance the sector through incentives and finally through the promotion of digital and the usage of data analytics – existing utilisation of offsite could be monitored to enhance and impact efficiencies across the sector. In addition, the development of Britain’s transport and infrastructure network to easily move components to sites will be vital.

The industry acknowledges a need for change but with one change comes money – a need for broader collaboration in the supply chain is key. Netherlands, Germany and the Nordics have embraced the building of manufactured homes, with 8 out 10 in Sweden using prefabricated timber. External factors will drive wider acceptance around modular such as mortgaging and insuring but signs already suggests mainstream providers are warming to the idea – or maybe jumping on the bandwagon!

Companies across the built environment sector are taking a major punt on Modern Methods of Construction. We are entering unprecedented changes for construction. The changes are much wider than simply offsite and are looking at performance along with diversity and supporting the mental health and wellbeing of employees. Those businesses that are adapting have the potential to thrive and those that don’t potentially won’t.

PwC are proud to be sponsoring the offsite construction category at this year’s Constructing Excellence Yorkshire and Humber Awards. All the details about the awards, including how to enter can be found at the Constructing Excellence Blog

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