The Spotlight is on
First published in the February issue of Insulate Magazine, Insulate Magazine’s technical editor Paul Forrester discusses how the spotlight is once again on Offiste Construction in 2018.
The latest dawn of offsite construction becoming mainstream is at least a couple of years old now. It always feels as though a breakthrough is just around the corner, but is that an invention of the media that supports it, or might things be different this time?
Elsewhere in this issue we make comparisons between the automotive and construction industries, and there are consistent calls for construction to adopt the sort of processes that have improved the quality of vehicles rolling off manufacturers’ production lines – an approach advocated in Sir John Egan’s report of 1998.
At the end of 2016, Mark Farmer wrote in his report, Modernise or Die, that offsite is the “panacea for construction’s ills”. It was the latest call to adopt alternative manufacturing techniques intended to deliver the sort of ‘disruption’ that is arguably much needed and long overdue in the industry.
The Technology Revolution in Offsite Construction
In talking about offsite, you can draw parallels with BIM. The revolution in digitised building information hasn’t quite taken off yet, even though pockets of the industry are doing amazing things with it.
Surveys highlight that the industry fully expects to be using both BIM and offsite more widely in the coming years, so awareness is not the issue. BIM and offsite are likely to be intrinsically linked, since to fully exploit the efficiency benefits of offsite manufacturing requires having a handle on the tools that achieve better collaboration.
Defining Offsite Building Delivery
In the same way that ‘BIM’ can describe a number of digital processes, so ‘offsite’ covers a variety of techniques for delivering buildings. The majority of construction can take place in a factory, with near-complete units delivered to site, or components can be assembled on site.
Modular systems are already employed for hotels and hospitals; while there are companies experimenting with small on-site factories that deliver the benefits of offsite in the location they’re needed – with the factory removed once development of the site is complete.
All are valid offsite methods, but the spread of experimentation means it is harder to judge the potential long-term success of one over another. Lack of predictability in the market hurts the speed with which it can prove itself and be adopted more widely.
Committing to a factory capable of delivering offsite solutions requires a level of demand that will bring down prices. But prices are too high to create that demand, and there is an understandable reluctance to invest as a result.
Construction Industry at Breaking Point
What we do know is that the cost of traditional construction is going up. Figures suggest 35,000 new skilled workers are required in the industry purely for it to stand still. The skilled workers already employed are commanding higher wages, while the overall shortfall in skills is resulting in poorer quality and more defects.
Demand from consumers, however, continues to make traditional construction the preferred solution, backed up by a lack of innovative financial products to support the purchase of alternative solutions.
Social housing and the private build-to-rent sector are therefore seen as the sectors best placed to drive up the demand for offsite. Inevitably, London is also expected to be a hub for offsite’s development, where lessons learned can be translated to other areas of the country.
Developing Solutions with Emphasis on Offsite Manufacture
A few products and systems have made their way to market, with an emphasis on combining an element of offsite manufacture with the familiarity of existing materials and techniques.
Only the manufacturers of those systems can know how exactly enthusiastic the uptake has been. Attending a few trade shows, either as a visitor or exhibitor, is enough to see that while new ideas certainly capture the imagination, converting that excitement into specifications is another matter entirely.
For as long as customers are unwilling to take the plunge, what incentive do manufacturers have to explore different – in most cases radically different – production techniques when their factories are kitted out and optimised for exactly what the market currently demands?
What kind of future do we want?
Returning to those automotive comparisons for a moment (Comparing the car and insulation industry post), the big oil and petroleum companies know the future lies away from diesel and petrol vehicles, but will do what they can to keep themselves relevant for as long as possible.
Has the time arrived when construction product manufacturers need to make a decision?
There’s a new horizon for the delivery of buildings and, while it might not be entirely new, it is definitely different to what we’re used to. Are product manufacturers, including in the insulation sector, willing to invest in that bold new future, or happy to prioritise the existing demand in order for the status quo to endure for as long as possible?
Why Offsite Construction is the Future.
- Speed of construction. The building fabric can be assembled while the groundworks are undertaken, shaving months off project planning.
- Reliability of materials and manufacture. Consistent processes in controlled conditions means better quality and reliable, improved performance.
- Lower costs – if offsite methods can be delivered at scale.
- Flexibility. Offsite methods can be used to construct units in places where traditional construction struggles (e.g. ‘infill’ units).
- Less waste. Efficiency in terms of the material used in construction; potential to disassemble completed units and re-use elsewhere.
- Reduced site disturbance, and possible health and safety benefits, with fewer on-site processes.
Have Your Say: Is Offsite Construction the Future?
Paul Forrester has shared his thoughts on Offsite Construction and manufacturer, but what is your opinion? Do you agree that is the future or is the traditional route of construction going to be around for the foreseeable future. Leave your comments and opinions below: