The Greater London Authority’s Designed, Sealed, Delivered report calls on Mayor Sadiq Khan to kick-start a “housing revolution” through offsite construction solutions. Tim Hall of Buildoffsite offers his thoughts
Designed, Sealed, Delivered is far more than a catchy title for the GLA’s review of the potential for offsite manufactured homes. There is real clarity of both the opportunities and challenges for housing in the UK’s capital. With the mayor’s leadership and the current alignment of market and supply chain conditions, the time is right for offsite construction solutions to deliver the additional, high quality homes the UK market has been lacking for more than two generations.
The report, its predecessors and Buildoffsite all recognise that the many rapidly developing offsite solutions are not a panacea to solve London’s housing needs. However, there is growing recognition that the evolution of precision-engineered housing models has helped to shift offsite from a maverick niche alternative to a mainstream and increasingly first-choice approach to construction. Offsite construction is about generating additional housing capacity, rather than trying to displace traditional methods.
Two of the report’s strong messages are the need for leadership and collaboration. Easy to trip off the tongue; harder to achieve in practice.
On the leadership front, both housing clients (HAs, LAs and developers) and the supply chain need certainty that the policy landscape will be consistent over the medium to long term. A short-term stimulus in favour of offsite construction solutions will not encourage clients to migrate their approach to new solutions. GLA leadership, supported by the innovation fund, will give a clear and consistent message that offsite will have an opportunity to demonstrate its potential as part of the supply mix.
Collaboration is equally easy to pay lip service to, but we must shift away from the ‘transactional’ nature of housing delivery from end client through developer, designer and contractor to the manufacturers. The real prize of improved performance and productivity comes when the whole value chain collaborates, over multiple projects. Creating the landscape and opportunities to enable this level of collaboration is Buildoffsite’s core purpose and we look forward to continuing our support for the GLA’s ambition.
The precision manufacturing of components, panels or whole modules gives offsite the potential to deliver greatly improved value to the client and occupants. Specification can be tailored to maximise energy performance and sustainability, at a lower cost than is achievable with traditional approaches.
The speed of delivery offsite can provide is well documented and halving of the traditional on-site programme should be the ambition for all developments. Certainty of programme and cost is the overarching concern of almost every client I talk to. By industrialising much of the build process and eliminating weather dependency, the variability of time and cost can be greatly reduced. It is Buildoffsite’s firm belief that as demand, manufacturing capability and capacity grow, we will soon reach a point where the cost of equivalent offsite construction solutions will drop below that of traditional construction. As with Saville Row suits and off-the-peg from M&S – in future, a home ‘hand-built’ on-site will attract an artisan premium over the precision-engineered home.
Consistently delivering these improved outcomes will need some significant changes in the way the industry works together. Collaboration between clients, designers, manufacturers and contractors will support the optimisation of designs, processes and the elimination of waste. This is enabled both by a common approach of Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DFMA) and Building Information Management (BIM). It is the whole system, integrated approach that Buildoffsite is working with client, contractor and manufacturer members to deliver.
There are, however, one or two words of caution for the approach the GLA is proposing, as the team themselves have already identified.
Firstly, there is a concern from Buildoffsite’s wider understanding of the supply side that there is something of an “Offsite Gold Rush” on the horizon. The supply shortfall is rightly seen as on opportunity to invest in capacity, but there are some who seem to take the approach of “let’s build a factory – how hard can it be?”. If well-intentioned but incapable suppliers enter the market, it risks undermining the credibility of offsite more widely. Buildoffsite will continue to support existing and new entrants to develop their capability in line with the GLA and industry requirements.
Secondly, with the ambition to create a Manufactured Housing Design Code, care should be taken to build on what exists rather than to create another new standard. The Home Quality Mark can be the focal point for raising standards in UK housing.
It is in the wider industry’s interest that the London Plan for housing delivers more homes, to a high standard, with consistently increasing levels of productivity and cost-effectiveness. In support of this, Buildoffsite and its members from across the client and supplier communities will fully support the intent of Designed, Sealed, Delivered and contribute to the Independent Panel going forward. We encourage all housing sector stakeholders to engage, contribute and shape the way forward. This is no time for spectators; housing needs its best innovators to collaborate and deliver.
Interim Chief Executive
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