Challenging The Construction Status Quo

HLM Architects recently appointed Dan Brown as Head of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) Delivery, where he will provide advice and support to existing and new clients on the delivery of offsite projects. We caught up with him to know more about the role and his thoughts on the offsite sector.

Q: As new Head of MMC Delivery at HLM Architects, can you say more about what the role will entail and what you will be wanting to achieve with it?

Dan Brown (DB): My role is to drive HLM’s ongoing integration and implementation of MMC and digital delivery across all studios and sectors and hone our strategic approach to delivery of offsite and MMC. Through collaboration with internal and external partners, I plan to develop and implement R&D initiatives that will innovate in this arena. Some of this activity is likely to be particularly relevant in addressing emerging updates to legislative frameworks such as the building regulations, and to the development of a circular economy. I fully expect the outcomes of R&D to be incorporated into project work across the practice so anticipate involvement in the production of digital tools and the delivery of training.

Q: The practice has committed itself to a ‘Think: Off-site First’ approach – what does that mean and how will you and the HLM team implement it?

DB: We are one of the first architectural practices that has committed so openly to embedding MMC at the heart of its work. Through ‘Think: Offsite First’, HLM hopes to implement across all sectors the many benefits that MMC can bring to projects in terms of quality, time, budget, environmental sustainability and health and safety. The wider team already question whether offsite construction can be implemented on projects and for me, this will include ‘hands-on’ involvement in current live projects as well as strategic input to guide what MMC categories might suit the specific needs of a programme, sector, site or scheme.

Q: The offsite construction sector has boomed over the last 2-3 years with many new entrants to the market with lots of talk of ‘disruptive design’ – from an architect’s perspective where is this disruptive design happening?

DB: Around the world, use of ‘modular’ and other types of MMC varies significantly, but its potential to improve the impact and efficiency of the built environment is clear. The adoption and acceptance of MMC in the UK is positively evolving and accelerating, thanks in part to investment and commitment from government and businesses across most construction sectors. Through continued learning from manufacturing industries and by targeted research and development, especially in relation to societal impacts, digital tools and the platform approach to MMC which is being advocated for Government’s cross-departmental procurement, I believe that closer collaboration in the construction industry can help drive success in the delivery of offsite projects.

This evolution includes disruptive design methodologies: data capture and analysis using sophisticated digital tools to test and evolve solutions which challenge the status quo are being developed. Alongside this, design programmes are being ‘turned on their head’, requiring new digital processes and a much earlier detailed involvement of specialist designers to work closely alongside the more ‘traditional’ design team to achieve a successful outcome.

Q: There is a real focus on the economic, environmental and smart technology aspects of the built environment now – where does aesthetics and visual appeal figure in improving where we live and work?

DB: Architecture has always been about more than simply the aesthetic. Visual appeal works alongside other sustainability measures to create successful places to live, work and play. Importantly, creative use of offsite manufacture should not impinge on aesthetic appeal. While the appearance of the built environment remains a key, but subjective, element in design, software solutions that objectively test iterative parametric changes to evolve a design solution that is technically successful and visually appealing are now becoming a crucial tool which architects adopt as part of their design methodology.

Q: The type of skillsets required in the modern construction industry is changing rapidly – not least in the offsite sector with the growth in digital tools (AI/VR) more important than ever. How central is technology to future offsite delivery and more efficient construction?

DB: The technological evolution is critical to MMC, not only for offsite manufacturing and assembly but also in relation to those elements of construction which remain site based. Numerous manual construction trades have for some time been subject to a fluctuating or diminishing skills-base. The offsite approach to construction aims to address these shortfalls but it is correct that different skills are required for successful delivery of MMC.

Alongside ‘production line’ skills, the use of drones, robots, AI/VR, these will automate elements of the delivery but of course, humans will be required to some degree to produce and control these tools. The education system needs to evolve to provide people with the right skills and the industry needs to work with schools, universities and other training providers to ensure a sustainable pipeline of digital and other relevant skills are maintained.

Q: The construction industry is under huge pressure to reduce energy consumption and change material use across the built environment to meet the UK’s net zero targets. How will HLM deliver energy efficiency in its approach to building design?

DB: As a practice, we’re keen to ensure we are taking responsibility to create places that have minimal negative impact on the world. HLM have committed to meeting the RIBA 2030 targets by 2025 and has developed strategies and design principles for each of these themes aligned to the RIBA Plan of Work that are embedded into our thinking. We have a suite of tools to ensure we define, develop and assess clients’ building projects in an evidenced-based way, such as our Thoughtful Design Toolkit.

We have established HLMGreenbuild, an association consultancy with the renowned environmental design consultant GreenBuild. This combines our expertise and offers specific services including: sustainability and energy design and reporting – BREEAM, LEED, and WELL certification – as well as environmental modelling.

We are also corporate members of the Passivhaus Trust, an independent, non-profit organisation that provides leadership in the UK for the adoption of the Passivhaus standard and methodology, and we have several qualified Passivhaus designers.

Q: Building regulations, the planning process and warranty issues are often held up as stymieing some of the benefits of offsite – e.g. its speed. What can be done to improve this situation and widen its client appeal?

DB: The planning process is not just an issue for offsite but for all construction projects. However, the recent moves to reform the planning system and take it to a new level with digital technology will hopefully address concerns so that teams can further streamline projects with reduced risk.

Building regulations are in the midst of significant review which will impact all construction. The offsite industry will need to work with these evolving legislative frameworks in future. The adoption of more standardisation, ‘type testing’ and certification, such as BOPAS, will provide clients and funders with more confidence in offsite solutions, and more innovative warranty schemes are likely to emerge. With all these areas, careful programming, standardisation and creative design will help balance the conflicting demands of control, speed and quality.

Q: The use of technology and digital tools within factory environments is now central to offsite technology plus the adoption of ‘repeatable components’ and ‘harmonised’ design – is this the future of offsite’s successful adoption?

DB: New digital tools, ‘platforms’ and integrated BIM are definitely an integral part of the future success for offsite. Changes in the perception that some stakeholders have in relation to offsite also needs to evolve. I’m particularly interested to see how the industry might change so that design teams integrate specific manufacturer’s requirements much earlier in a project – perhaps with a partnering approach where design, manufacturing and other team members come together for programmes of work to build efficiency and speed into projects? This will require design, procurement and funding philosophies to adapt so that risks are fairly managed, and creativity is maintained.

Q: In a post-pandemic world – where do you see the UK offsite sector developing and thriving over the next 18 months?

DB: There is strong potential for offsite to be applied more across all sectors. HLM has long been an advocate of this and our recent work in education is an example of where MMC has lots of potential and is helping clients, such as Wokingham Borough Council, reach sustainability and net-zero carbon targets. The recently completed expansion at Addington School showcases this point. BIM Level 2 and data-led technology enabled the team to work closely together, creatively putting user needs and carbon reduction at the forefront. Efficient use of time and digital tools at the front end of the process enabled manufacturing to begin more quickly and gave scope for more stakeholder engagement in the early design decision making process to help establish a holistic digital and offsite strategy.

Although 3D volumetric modular offsite construction offers many benefits, it isn’t a solution for all cases and other MMC categories will develop across all sectors. As materials shortages continue, there is probably going to be some fluctuation in which offsite solutions appear most beneficial. However, this will be cyclical, and, on balance, there will remain strong opportunities for the industry, particularly as central government has offsite high on the construction agenda.


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