Richard Ogden, Chairman of the Buildoffsite organisation explains why offsite construction can bring huge benefits to the construction industry…
I have worked in the construction industry for almost 50 years with many roles including client and supplier. In that time, I have picked up two abiding thoughts. Firstly – the industry employs some fantastic people who work really hard and are committed to great work. Secondly – for the most part – the way the industry works and the processes it uses combine to ensure that the industry is incapable of delivering the consistent quality and increasing value that we routinely expect from all other industries. Closely coupled to this is the inability of the industry as a whole to make any serious inroads into improving the stubbornly low levels of productivity, the inability to reduce the levels of waste (of all types), and the inability to raise standards, or even in some cases to meet the performance standards required by contract, or in some cases, by Building Regulations. The inevitable consequence is that all of us pick up the costs of this failure in the prices we pay whether as construction clients or as downstream customers and consumers.
My journey of discovery into offsite construction methods started more than 20 years ago when I was responsible for transforming the delivery of McDonalds Restaurants from traditional construction to rapid, cost effective delivery using offsite construction methods. At that time, the economy was booming and traditional construction had become so expensive that for us, the business case for investment just didn’t stack up. I suspect that in some parts of the country we are once again rapidly approaching much the same situation. As a business, we had no choice but to find new ways to deliver our restaurants if we wanted to grow our business. That harsh reality made us think afresh about our relationship with the traditional construction industry, and despite the siren voices telling us that there was no alternative, we found ways of engaging with new suppliers who wanted to work with us to do things differently.
If you look at things from the viewpoint of a consumer, our expectations were not that unusual – nor especially demanding. Basically, we were quite content to pay – and pay well – for built assets, but we did not want to pay for process inefficiency and waste. Spending £1 to get less (often much less) than 50p of “value” was not a great prospect. We had a shopping list of requirements that included the need for an absolute assurance about the quality and performance in use of the completed construction – an approach to design and construction that is nowadays referred to as Design for Manufacturing and Assembly – an ambition to transfer as much work as possible into a factory environment, to eliminate waste in all its forms, to establish a long term relationship with our suppliers, and an insistence that our suppliers made a decent margin so that they had the ability to invest in future innovation that in time would benefit us. What we achieved provided a fantastic model for others to follow and in turn, the speed, time, quality and value for money advantages have benefitted the retail industry, education, health and other sectors.
The optimisation of offsite solutions to deliver construction projects had such obvious benefits to the wider industry that just about 12 years ago with active encouragement from what at the time was the Department for Trade and Industry, we established the Buildoffsite organisation. We set out to do a number of things including:
• Working with others to promote the business and project case for the increased use of offsite construction in all markets;
• Showcasing and sharing the learning from exemplar projects;
• Being completely agnostic about the materials used in offsite construction;
• Providing a forum for networking to support continuous improvement;
• Supporting and promoting innovations such as information modelling and Lean that would support the drive for quality and improved value; and
• Challenging the offsite supply side to talk to and work with customers and strive for continuous improvement.
These are still our ambitions.
Just for the record, let me stress that Buildoffsite is in no way opposed to traditional methods of construction. There is, and no doubt will always be, a place for building onsite from a set of basic products. However, let me suggest that the market for traditional methods will be squeezed as clients, their professional advisers and constructors increasingly recognise that viable alternatives are increasingly available for both new build and for refurbishment projects. Yes, I do recognise that the latter provides some real challenges for the offsite industry, but challenge is good, and if you look at how leading clients are already progressing rapid refurbishment using offsite modules and components, the direction of travel is clear enough.
I am not going to pretend that the offsite industry has arrived fully formed and fully effective. There is a huge job of work to be done and massive investment is required both to ensure the availability of offsite products at scale, but also to engage with the industry at large with an education and awareness programme to encourage people to think about construction in terms of how the client’s requirement might be better delivered through the exploitation of offsite methods, rather than simply thinking of offsite as like-for-like alternatives to doing things traditionally. To think in these terms would be to miss the point, and to miss the opportunity to do construction differently.
I absolutely recognise that the offsite industry also needs to address important concerns relating to ensuring high-quality design and the need for solutions to be sufficiently flexible to meet specific client requirements relating to site characteristics and spatial requirements. However, I have no doubt that given the opportunity to compete with traditional alternatives, offsite enabled approaches to design and construction will deliver fantastic solutions.
Buildoffsite is a membership organisation drawn from across the client and supplier communities and I hope that many more organisations will join us as working together, we can be more effective in accelerating the inevitable rise of offsite solutions as the norm for construction – just as it is for all other modern manufacturing sectors. I hope that as many people as possible will take the time to review our work programme and outputs on the website www.buildoffsite.com and let us have comments.
Finally, I just want to mention that the second annual Offsite Construction Show takes place on 12/13 October this year at ExCel in London’s Docklands. Admission is free for delegates. Buildoffsite will be exhibiting and running a programme of seminars. This Show will be a great opportunity to see some of the latest developments in offsite, to take in some great presentations and to network with people who are passionate about building a better, more effective construction industry. Put the date in your diary and I hope to see you there. www.off-siteshow.co.uk ■
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Tel: +44 (0)20 7549 3306