David Clark, manufacturing director of The McAvoy Group explores how offsite construction can help the industry hit net-zero targets
Last month the Prime Minister announced an expansive £350m package to cut UK emissions in heavy industry and drive economic recovery following Covid-19. The investment will contribute to the UK’s goal of reaching net-zero by 2050, with work underway to decarbonise across heavy industry, transport, space and of course the construction industry.
We know that advancing Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) is an important component of the UK’s strategy to achieve net-zero – yet of the total £350m, just £26m has been allocated for advanced new building techniques, along with £10m to boost state of the art building technology on specific projects.
Offsite construction is vital for lowering emissions
The construction industry has a significant role to play in meeting the UK’s net-zero target (which will be no mean feat). The sector comprises just 7% of the UK economy, yet it directly accounts for 10% of the country’s emissions and influences a further 47%.
Offsite construction will be a key player in driving emissions down, not just reducing travel to and from the site and limiting landfill of waste products but working to limit the embodied emissions and delivering a more sustainable structure across its entire lifecycle.
There is no doubt that MMC will help reduce the UK’s carbon emissions – but we need more investment to make it happen. The Committee on Climate Change has forecast that £5-10bn per year must be spent by UK industry in order to be carbon net-zero in 30 years’ time. It’s a significant figure that illustrates the additional investment necessary to make it happen.
While it’s positive to see clarity from the government in its support for MMC – and this latest package reinforces that position – it must lead from the front, with its own departments procuring offsite projects.
Offsite construction has come a long way in recent years – the industry has invested heavily in R&D, with some impressive results that have challenged the status quo and delivered important learnings. The industry’s willingness to collaborate, pooling knowledge, assets and insight – has been key to accelerating its capabilities.
The Seismic Consortium is an excellent example of that willingness to collaborate – bringing together a group of industry leaders, including McAvoy, it will help to revolutionise the way schools can be built.
The original Seismic project delivered an open-sourced app, along with a standardised connector and structural frame. Traditional construction methods usually involve bespoke systems created by individual manufacturers, which often leads to errors, delays and defects due to incompatibility between different system – the standardisation of components has made that a thing of the past. Seismic wasn’t a hugely costly project, yet the benefits are vast – as are the potential cost savings.
The sustainability improvements are particularly notable, reducing carbon emissions for a typical 40-module school by as much as 50%. For example, by rationalising the design of the steel structure, the amount of steel used in an average primary school built offsite can be reduced by 25%. The cost saving is as much as 25%, with 25% less carbon emissions.
Offsite is proven, tried and tested
Following the success of the first Seismic project, a further £5.6m of the £26m allocated for new building techniques has been awarded to Seismic II. Part two will bring the consortium of experts together once again, extending its learnings to the healthcare, commercial and residential sectors and now looking at the whole life performance of buildings delivered using offsite construction.
While I’ve no doubt that Seismic II will deliver yet more improvements to offsite construction, again providing learnings and improvements to offsite technology and digital platforms that benefit the entire industry, more needs to be done to promote the benefits of MMC and that doesn’t just constitute more funding.
Countless projects that could be delivered more efficiently and cost-effectively offsite – to the same standard and design quality – are built using the same old bricks and mortar formula. Along with the obvious vested interest, a lot of this boils down to misinformation and a lack of awareness around its quality and capabilities.
Offsite construction is the future of construction – yet to some, it remains a radical new solution.
The offsite industry is constantly pushing the boundaries on what is possible, but there is still a job to be done in changing perceptions, ensuring that offsite is considered for all projects. Procurement must not simply defer bricks and mortar simply because that is what has always been done.
Along with funding innovation, the government has a role to play in tackling outdated perceptions around MCC, leading by example and supporting in convincing some of the more reticent players.
The pace of change must accelerate considerably if MMC is to contribute to meeting the UK’s zero carbon target by 2050 in any meaningful way.