Martin Ganley, BRE programme director for the Construction Innovation Hub, offers his reflections on a recent roundtable looking at advanced manufacturing techniques in the built environment sector
As BRE’s programme director for the Construction Innovation Hub, I was delighted to attend a recent BRE-hosted industry roundtable on the topic of advanced manufacturing techniques in the built environment. For those not yet familiar with the Hub, it is designed to be a catalyst for change, bringing together world-class expertise from the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), Building Research Establishment (BRE) and the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) to transform the UK construction industry.
Together we have been awarded £72m from UK Research & Innovation’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to change the way buildings and infrastructure are designed, manufactured, integrated and connected within our built environment. With a purpose to drive collaboration to develop, commercialise and promote digital and manufacturing technologies for the construction sector, leading to faster, cheaper, smarter, greener and more efficient buildings.
The roundtable appropriately took place at the MTC in Coventry and the question posed to the group of industry influencers was “How can we accelerate the implementation of advanced manufacturing techniques in the built environment sector?” This article aims to capture the key points raised during this very important debate.
Using modular, offsite construction, thousands of new homes and buildings will be built in factories, rather than on-site. Sekisui House delivered 43,735 homes last year, close to 5% of Japan’s total and during its 59 years of operation, the company has built more than 2.4m dwellings. The British government has set a target to build 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. With current delivery at about 200,000, policymakers are seeking new avenues to stimulate building.
“Right first time” became a watchword that the UK construction sector would do well to learn from now. This is a sector where contractors work on an average margin of just 1.5%, according to the Construction Index, and its products don’t always enjoy the best of reputations – when the government surveyed the general population, 60% of respondents said that, given the choice, they would rather live in an old than a newly built house.
The opening challenge came from Keith Waller, a seasoned professional in the UK construction world. Keith is programme director at the Construction Innovation Hub (CIH) and has 30 years’ experience in major construction and infrastructure under his belt.
Keith explained that £170m will be invested over four years to attempt to transform the sector and £72m of that will go to the CIH. Keith said that the development of rules, standards and assurance for products was important and that heed would be made of the report by Dame Judith Hackitt. Information management and the sharing of data was also important.
“But,” he said, “If we do all those things over the next four years and produce all the outputs that we need to produce without proper engagement from government and industry then nothing will change.
“Why? Well, digitally enabling manufacture isn’t our end goal at all. As a nation, we invest around £65bn each year in our economic and social infrastructure and that’s schools, prisons, hospitals, railways, airports, utility airports. That’s excluding housing, that’s excluding commercial, industrial. And that is procured from a multitude of public sector departments, agencies and bodies and through regulated utilities and some private sector companies.
“So, £65bn a year, but the question we should be asking ourselves is not how we manufacture more, or how we use data more. We should be asking ourselves how do we deliver better social, economic and environmental outcomes from that investment. How does that investment support driving productive growth and rebalancing the economy and decarbonising infrastructure and reducing the amount of waste, and reducing the harm that we do to people through the construction process, reduce the impact that we have on local communities and support businesses to develop and grow.
“So our focus then should be how do we deliver better outcomes? Our challenge at the moment is most procuring authorities tend to value through the lens of initial capital cost, and actually what we need to be doing is understanding value through a different lens.
“One of the things that construction does very, very well is it describes what it does. It doesn’t describe what people get from it particularly well. So actually, we need to start changing the debate from how cheap can we build it, and how much risk as a business are we willing to take in a very fragmented and non-productive industry, and start trying to value things in a slightly different way.
“When people talk about Design for Manufacture and Assembly, or Modern Methods of Construction or offsite construction, they are all terms that excite people – even ministers – but actually all they are is a way of describing the capital phase of a project and not the outcomes, not the through-life performance, not how these things can help people’s lives and build a better society.”
Damini Sharma, the managing director of OM group, said: “But one fundamental thing that is missing is that sharing of knowledge, information and forward-thinking from the top level all the way through the supply chain so that everybody, from your guys at the bottom of the supply chain and supplying the bare, basic raw materials upwards has the same knowledge and information and can see the future in the same way. That’s how we’ll convince the mass market. It’s got to be at grassroots level, so it can really make a difference.”
Just how tough things can be at ground level on a building site was brought home by Richard Duxbury, a senior design and build manager at Deeley Construction.
“In my experience it’s always money that leads conversation. So the projects that we tender for and win – a lot of my work is negotiated but we do tender work as well – the first question that we always get asked when we submit any bids is ‘can you reduce the price down, it’s over budget?’ Something has to give. It’s simple. The products have to be reduced down in specification in some way, shape or form,” he said.
“There is a quality issue in the industry, without a shadow of a doubt, that’s down to labour forces.”
A powerful reason, one might think, for more productive offsite manufacturing techniques to be adopted. Many around the table thought that radical and enduring change in construction wouldn’t be driven by the UK domestic housing sector.
“It’s likely to be driven by social infrastructure because government is such a big investor and should be taking a long-term view,” noted one participant.
It was agreed that we should focus on how we create the outcomes that people want out of the built environment. Some of that is going to be about maintaining the existing environment, and getting the sector involved in doing that, and some of it’s about building new things.
If it’s true, said one participant, that inefficiencies in construction meant that every piece of material that is delivered to a UK building site is moved four times around that site before being put to use and for every house in the UK we send seven tonnes of waste to landfill, then that’s another example of where offsite manufacturing provides a better solution. Others were concerned about the difficult challenge of balancing supply and demand that automation could bring.
The youngest participant was Joseph Daniels of Project Etopia, the proptech entrepreneur.
“The problem in construction is that the policymakers, as wise and knowledgeable as they are, probably aren’t as adapted to change,” he said.
“In the 50s and 60s, you had 50 draughtsmen to a building. Now you can create a 20-storey building in Sketch Up in less than three-and-a-half hours. Actually, making more smaller spaces more flexibly is happening in places like India and places like Hong Kong and Japan. We need to introduce this here because it’s critical for space when you’re building high rises. Unless we make that change, I feel that the industry is still going to stagnate and none of us will be able to innovate effectively because it won’t be accepted.”
BRE Programme Director
Construction Innovation Hub