Building offsite: Construction is taking shape in factories across the UK

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Buildoffsite explains why building offsite in factories is an attractive method that provides many benefits and opportunities for the construction industry

Industry, clients and investor interest in the use of offsite construction is gathering pace. This is happening across the entire marketplace including in the new build housing sector which until recently had been remarkably resistant to shifting away from traditional and well-understood methods of building out schemes only at a pace that matched sales.

In a market where the cost of traditional construction is rapidly increasing, the opportunity for clients and project teams to draw on an alternative approach to delivery is becoming increasingly attractive. For the first time in a generation, uncertainties about the cost and availability of traditional labour with the required skills, closely coupled to the rapid escalation in the cost of traditional materials, are rightly being recognised as a significant project risk.

Transition from traditional construction

In the past, traditional construction methods were regarded as being well understood, safe, and predictable from a project delivery viewpoint. This comfortable position held sway even when it was widely understood that there were significant doubts about the quality of traditional build, the slow speed of traditional construction, poor standards of health and safety on site, excessive levels of waste and uncertainties regarding the performance of completed construction in use.

Curiously, set against this background of risk and potential failure, offsite construction was seen as something new and little understood outside of fast food outlets and hotel accommodation. In order to protect the interests of clients, it was necessary to add on a price penalty to reflect the perceived additional risk. Few clients were made aware that an offsite approach to construction incorporated into the development and construction process was much more likely to ensure right first time quality, and that it could be delivered quickly on site. Neither were clients made aware they could have a performance in use that was more likely to match required performance levels.

Well, times are changing fast with offsite construction rapidly coming of age with a constant stream of case studies, media coverage and growing industry awareness at all levels that are making the business and project case for offsite to be considered as a serious alternative to traditional construction.

Significant investment in manufacturing is coming through that will boost capacity and ensure competition in the offsite supply side. This market maturity will help give confidence to customers. This is a positive development that in tandem with rising market demand will help ensure the economies of scale that are so important to effectively operate manufacturing in ways that drive efficiency of operation and reduce the cost of production.

The challenge for many clients, their advisers and constructors is that currently they may only have a limited understanding of offsite solutions and may not have the experience or have access to the skills needed to get the best out of offsite construction methods.

There are clearly some important learning points. If offsite solutions are seen or presented simply as a like for like alternative to traditional construction methods, then the outcome regarding overall project performance is probably not going to be entirely satisfactory. Assuming an informed approach to managing an offsite supply chain, it is highly likely that the use of offsite elements will speed up assembly on site of relevant aspects of the construction. However, if the completion of the project is substantially dependent on traditional site-based construction, then the benefits from utilising offsite methods may be masked.

Innovation in construction

Optimising construction innovation through the use of offsite solutions starts at the design stage which needs to have regard to the possibility of offsite enabled construction. Frankly, it is difficult and potentially expensive to take a project that has been designed for traditional construction and to re-engineer this for offsite delivery. The challenge will become even more daunting if the scheme has already received planning consent.

Equally important is early engagement with potential offsite suppliers to take expert advice on how the proposed scheme can best benefit from the incorporation of offsite elements and to identify relevant design considerations to best meet client requirements and to identify opportunities to deliver enhanced value and to protect the build programme.

Perhaps the biggest single challenge that can be applied to any project is to honestly and openly examine the merits and demerits of adopting either a traditional or an offsite approach and to reach an informed conclusion based on the specific circumstances. Arbitrary decisions about construction based simply on precedent may not represent the best way to protect client interests.

It would be extreme to argue that offsite methods will eventually become the new norm for all construction. There will always be an important role for traditional skills – particularly in the repair maintenance and improvement market which accounts for around half of overall market value.

However, what is clear is that the use of offsite construction will continue to grow and the commercial rewards will go to those designers, constructors and suppliers who are those early adopters who are quickest to understand that offsite methods can have a transformational impact on design and construction practices. Arguably it will be through the use of offsite methods that the construction industry will finally transform itself into an industry that year on year can improve productivity and client value as a refreshing change to the flat-lining that has applied for decades.

Those who want to learn more about offsite construction should think about signing up as delegates to the Offsite Construction Show 2017 that takes place at London’s ExCel Centre on 11 and 12 October. Delegate places are free. For more information contact: www.offsiteconstructionshow.co.uk

 

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