With ambitious targets and huge sums of money required to improve the nation’s key infrastructure – can offsite methods provide the answers? The Offsite Hub Blog caught up with Will Varah, Programme Director, Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) at Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA), to find out
Q: For those unfamiliar with the IPA and what it does – can you outline its function and what your role is as Programme Director for MMC at the IPA?
Will Varah (WV): The IPA is the government’s centre of expertise for infrastructure and major projects. We work across the policy environment, support delivery and provide monitoring and assurance. My work on MMC is focused on bridging between the strategy and implementation.
Q: The IPA has a Transforming Infrastructure Performance (TIP) strategy and the platform approach to design for manufacture and assembly (P-DfMA) – what is this set to achieve?
WV: TIP talks about value, rather than just the capital cost, and we need to start applying that thinking across the whole of the system, network and asset - not just within the confines of the project. It’s important that the outcomes we define at the outset will drive sustainable, productive, innovative approaches that support thriving communities. When we think about those outcomes, it’s clear that platform and manufacturing approaches could be transformative for productivity and enable the creation of jobs in stable manufacturing environments in addition to the current itinerant labour model.
Q: How can P-DfMA enable new buildings to be designed and configured to drive whole-life value, lower carbon and energy use, better quality and overall better building performance?
WV: Too often we adopt models that either procure bespoke solutions, or drive towards an ever shortening menu of options. There is an opportunity, in adopting platform approaches, to see a range of significant improvements. However, this will need us to focus not just on the product, but also the processes for development, validation and production. Rather than designing a product and then asking whether the process can deliver it, we need to start by designing the processes that can deliver the outcomes we want through the whole life.
Q: What key points came out of the 2019 consultation on P-DfMA? Did any particular barriers or policy developments get identified for the Government as a construction client?
WV: There are certainly some collective challenges that are well recognised. In particular, there is a consistent theme around the need to aggregate demand in a way that enables and incentivises solutions that can be applied in a common way across sectors. This will require rationalisation and greater interoperability, but new commercial models and approaches to defining value will be essential enablers.
Q: The scale of work currently being delivered across Government by the IPA to transform public services is huge – what type of projects can benefit the most from an offsite approach – transport improvements are surely a central concern?
WV: Certainly there are offsite approaches that have helped enable projects in implementing the CLC’s site operating procedures. The answers may differ across sectors: some linear infrastructure may benefit more from delivery models that incentivise optimised processes, some buildings may benefit from platform approaches, other buildings may suit pre-cast or modular solutions. My view would be that any project in the built environment should be aiming to drive benefits by looking at the range of MMC and considering how best the desired outcomes can be achieved.
Q: There is always much talk of harmonising and using digital technology to rationalise construction specifications and standards. Can government aggregate demand to provide a pipeline to support increased manufacturing approaches in the construction industry?
WV: There is always more that can be done – but there are signs of good progress on digital and rationalised standards and associated interoperability considerations. For example, through the construction sector deal the government has supported the platform work of the Construction Innovation Hub, and the Gemini principles, Information Management Landscape and UK BIM framework move the wider agenda forwards. Highways England provides an excellent case study with its refreshed Design Manual for Roads and Bridges (DMRB) which presents rationalised content in machine readable format.
Q: A long-term concern – and sometimes a criticism – is how best to understand and define the value of offsite methods in comparison to ‘traditional build’. How do you define value in this regard?
WV: The starting point for defining value has to be an understanding of the intended outcomes from any investment. There are certainly challenges, and to support deeper thinking about value across the five capitals we will need to further develop the necessary tools and benchmarks. We also need to apply existing thinking more consistently and improve at the basics – such as data capture. Contracting for the whole life outcomes can help to guard against a misplaced focus on too limited a range of value criteria.
Q: What can digital technology truly deliver in addition to the wider benefits of offsite manufacture? The PRISM app that was launched last year for example – do they have a long term value to improve and maximise quality?
WV: I think that digital approaches can be transformative across a range of our approaches to considering, delivering and using our built environment. The PRISM app which automates aspects of the design process for example – these kinds of approaches can enable consideration a far greater range of options. Whether that is looking at thousands of different possible routes for a train line, or many different potential configurations for a building.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions should increasingly be able to look at the processes as well as the products – enabling more data driven approaches to, say, reducing programme risk. There are plenty of challenges – interoperability being one – but we are still early in the journey. Just like it took time for standardised electricity to flow through into real societal impact, I hope that these technologies can free us to focus on the more meaningful and creative decisions and help us in challenging our self-imposed limitations and biases.
For more information and to keep up with developments at the IPA visit: https://bit.ly/2ZmGFyU You can hear more from Will Varah about Transforming Infrastructure Performance and P-DfMA at the Emerging Realities Conference, Coventry 1-2 December 2020. For more information visit: www.emergingrealities.co.uk