With housebuilders facing the pressures of rising demand, growing skills shortages and higher costs, Jason Ruddle of Elecosoft says it is time for a greater focus on improving efficiency
Whatever political surprises 2018 has in store, when it comes to housing policy itself, support for social housing investment and encouragement of private sector housebuilding is unlikely to change. Since the white paper of February 2017, there have been successive funding boosts, with the Prime Minister adding another £2bn and 5,000 homes per year to the existing five-year plan in October.
Several national housebuilders saw early positive impacts on their share price – although analyst estimates have recently knocked those back. Concerns about shaky private sales in a wobbly housing market have combined with fears that housebuilders may not yet see all the benefits of the increased investment and grumblings that local councils still may not borrow in order to build.
The mood of optimism may have muted somewhat. However, specialist housebuilders and construction companies with a housebuilding footprint still have reasons to be positive. But, if they are to realise all the benefits that more housebuilding could bring, they will need to be absolutely focused on ensuring that they can deliver new homes faster and more efficiently than ever before – no matter whether they are in the private sector or bidding for public sector tenders.
It will require them to refocus on planning. They must plan for ‘what if’ barriers emerging, adapt effortlessly to surprises and embrace the benefits of 4D planning and BIM to gain new dimensions of visibility and control. The use of professional software in assuring the delivery of projects is not yet ubiquitous, and housebuilders are as much in need of a culture of collaboration and efficiency as their colleagues in the wider market.
2018 is the year to accelerate the adoption of modern methods such as offsite construction and the use of prefabrication. Minimising build durations and faster completion of plots could transform cashflow for private firms, while offsite may also mitigate the increasing skills shortages, which are likely to be exacerbated by Brexit.
UK Construction Week’s 2017 survey suggested that 53% of builders will soon embrace offsite manufacturing. In the public sector, the use of such methods is now embedded in housing policy and will become increasingly common in public tenders, as has BIM.
We have seen encouraging signs among our housebuilding customers that a new culture of operational efficiency is emerging. Keepmoat Regeneration, for example, is engaged in numerous regeneration and new build projects. It is fully aware that keeping projects on track is critical, as it breathes new life into neighbourhoods, brings brownfield sites into new use and creates future homes. It is gradually moving planning in all areas of the business to a single shared platform, provided by our Asta Powerproject software.
Planning manager Jonathan Dann is driving this and says it is making more people, in more departments, more aware of how their activities impact everyone else: “What it means is that people are understanding that if a particular department doesn’t stick to its programme, it has an effect on site.”
The use of consistent planning practice is gradually being extended. Now programmes are covering every stage from outline and pre-start planning through to construction.
Willmott Dixon is another good example. It has vast experience in residential construction, and has been proactively building a time-centric culture within its business for some time via its ‘FiiT Time’ programme (Focused Innovation and Improvement team for Time). Our software sits at the heart of their process for helping to connect every employee with good planning and effective use of time. National planning manager Paul Hoskins told us how increased accountability for time and involvement in planning is working in relation to the specific challenges of residential construction.
These include the highly repetitive nature of planning and progress management, and the real-time changing of completion deadlines that comes with sales to homebuyers throughout developments.
Managing change is a normal part of construction project and progress management. However, in homebuilding, additional stakeholders come into play.
Paul explains: “What makes residential construction different is that there are numerous homeowners involved, as well as the development customer. This creates lots of competing influences, so commitments and demands can change very quickly.”
Demand from different stakeholders creates rapidly shifting priorities. As well as creating a need to quickly re-plan resources and reschedule work, it also has a direct business impact because the house sales are intimately tied to cashflow. Therefore, site managers at Willmott Dixon have been empowered to take more control of planning to enable them to react faster to change.
Even with continuous and increasing government support for new housing, construction needs to work smarter to deliver on time and budget. Already narrow margins are being squeezed further by numerous factors that companies can’t control, like labour shortages, skills gaps and rising material costs. We urge them to take greater control of those things they can influence, putting approaches and tools in place to help them to enhance planning, drive resource efficiency, embrace modern methods and improve collaboration.
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