Industry perceptions of modular buildings constructed off site need to change if the offsite industry is to take advantage of its opportunities for growth
Posted on Thu 7th Dec, 2017 in: Influence by Phil Reed
ver the years we’ve worked in many different parts of the construction industry, from housebuilders and developers to main contractors and specialist building services providers.
Right across the industry there’s a well-established maxim that if you want it built more quickly it will cost you more. If you want it built for less, you’ll have to sacrifice quality, and if you want higher quality it will take longer and cost more.
In the last 10 to 15 years, however, innovation in construction – in both domestic and commercial buildings – means that’s no longer the case.
What are commonly termed modern methods of construction (MMC) are driving that change.
The innovations in MMC are being driven in part by climate change legislation – which is requiring greater energy efficiency in buildings – and in part by the need for improved productivity in construction.
The case for MMC was boosted in the recent Budget, when Chancellor Philip Hammond said the government would prioritise MMC – including offsite manufacturing – to improve the cost effectiveness and speed of construction.
Recent research by the NHBC Foundation found the vast majority of housebuilders have used, or have considered using, MMC in the past few years. Not surprisingly, almost half of housebuilders expect the use of MMC to increase over the next few years.
Offsite manufacture is key to this. It reduces overall build times on projects, which obviously has a knock-on effect on the overall project cost. But manufacturing and assembling in a factory-controlled environment can also increase quality, reduce wastage and cut the number of on-site man hours (with associated health and safety benefits).
Although offsite construction in the UK continues to grow (around a tenth of construction output is now offsite, compared to 2% less than 10 years ago) we’ve still some catching up to do.
In China, for example, offsite construction is seen as fundamental to the country’s drive to mass urbanisation. Famously, one developer built a 57-storey tower in Changsha in just 19 days, using prefabricated materials. That’s a rate of three storeys per day!
As the government has now recognised, more needs to be done in the UK to make offsite construction a key component of every housing development, every school or hospital and every new commercial building.
But first there’s a perception issue to be tackled.
Say ‘portable’ and ‘modular’ and everyone automatically thinks ‘box’. But just because it’s built in a factory and taken to site on the back of a lorry doesn’t mean it can’t be aesthetically pleasing.
When it comes to portable and modular, there’s no bigger name than Portakabin, but check out what the company is building today. Those designs are a million miles from the portable work cabins the busess was built on. And ‘cabin’ is something of a misnomer – if you want an entire school built using modular design, you can have it.
An example of modular design possibilities: A hospital unit in Middlesex, built by Portakabin.
Of course, Portakabin’s far from the only company bringing innovation into offsite, and that’s why the industry as a whole needs to focus on influencing not just the government, but main contractors, developers, local authorities, specifiers and so on.
Everyone connected with construction needs to be banging the offsite drum.
There’s no shortage of channels – including PR, social media, video, marketing (online and offline), award entries, events and exhibitions – and there’s no shortage of great projects to highlight.
The vision of trade body Buildoffsite is for “recognition across the construction industry that offsite solutions offer opportunities to improve project quality, deliver increased value, improve productivity and support a more sustainable industry”.
But if there are clear financial, environmental and safety benefits to manufacturing in factory-controlled conditions, surely that vision needs to be more than simply recognising the value of offsite? It needs to take the government’s cue and push for MMC to form a part of every build project.
Influencing the main contractors is key to achieving that.
It’s telling that only a handful of the big-name contractors are members of Buildoffsite. Regardless of whether they have their own offsite operations, they need to be bringing MMC into the earliest stages of project planning.
In his Budget, Philip Hammond cleared a path for offsite manufacturing to join the top table of UK construction. Now it’s up to the offsite industry to demonstrate it deserves that seat at the table.