Five minutes with Phillip Hutton, Divisional Director at ESS Modular

Phillip Hutton is Divisional Director for ESS Modular and is responsible for the Healthcare, Residential and Commercial sector in the UK. He has thirty years' experience working in the construction sector with extensive knowledge of offsite manufacturing in particular. Here he shares the key learnings from his career to date.

1. What is the most interesting project you have been involved in over the years and why?

I have been involved in some very interesting projects over the years, each of which presented their own challenges and opportunities.

Delivering the first ever modular operating theatre in Northern Ireland, a weather observation laboratory for The Met Office manufactured offsite and completed in the Shetland Islands and the multi-site development of community hubs in County Durham are some of the stand-out projects. Each of them provided a lot of learnings, particularly around technical detailing, complex fit out and the development of advanced manufacturing techniques which would enable us to take our project delivery literally anywhere in the UK.

More recently, it was a rewarding experience to be appointed as sole provider for the Pan London Accommodation Collaborative Enterprise (PLACE) framework. This allowed us to bring all of the ESS Modular teams expertise and experience together to deliver high quality modular apartments, completed up to 95% in factory controlled conditions.

The framework is up and running now and we will provide 200 hundred apartments over an 18-month period across multiple sites, providing high quality homes for those currently registered as homeless. It is heartening to see how our efforts and collaboration with others will bring real tangible benefits to people living in Greater London.

2. In your career working in the construction industry, what do you believe the most fundamental change/innovation has been?

Specifically relating to the modular industry, a major change in the last 10 years has been the acceptance by the construction industry in general to adopt, embrace and actively pursue offsite construction techniques where previously the industry would have been reluctant.

Other industries have embraced technology and change - e.g. car manufacturing - so it is a major progression to see the construction industry move in this way. As a company we would consider ourselves to be a pioneer and promoter of offsite, and we have been adapting and providing alternatives in the traditional construction market for some time.

Offsite construction adds a variety of construction methodologies to the sector, with major benefits to offer, in particular for the education, healthcare, residential and commercial sectors.

In the UK over the last decade there has been a major increase in demand for housing and wider concerns around the need to improve performance. Several recognised industry surveys have been carried out to examine the limitations, benefits, barriers to entry and the level of satisfaction experienced with modular construction in comparison to traditional construction.

Results have shown across several published surveys that in comparison to traditional construction, modular can offer a right first-time quality of product, significant savings in construction programme, improved health & safety and increased end-user satisfaction.

3. What impact has the Covid-19 had on the construction industry?

The situation with Covid has had an impact on virtually everyone in the UK and Ireland, and of course we are no exception to that. In the first instance our priority was to secure the wellbeing of our employees and partners and we were very grateful for the support provided from respective Governments to protect jobs and keep people working.

We are pleased to say that despite a short period of closure we have maintained a very active period of manufacturing and offsite construction project delivery. Working under stringent Covid procedures, we have been able to complete a number of projects during this time.

We have also seen a major increase in demand for Healthcare projects to address the need for additional ward space, clinical facilities and nightingale facilities. As it happened, we had been working towards a more streamlined product offering for the Healthcare sector generally, knowing the seasonal peaks in demand that happens year in year out and the ongoing need to Improve facilities and capacity.

The Covid pandemic simply accelerated this process and we are delighted that we have been in a position to provide fast and effective solutions to the industry at this time. For example, we had a pre-designed modular nightingale ward facility which we have been able to roll out and we are currently providing a number of these facilities to our clients.

The process that we have developed means that, after a very short design engagement period, we are able to offer a new 60 bed nightingale project delivered within 14 weeks from start to finish. We are also delivering fully compliant ward projects across various sites and at present have a further 180 beds in production.

Our precision manufacturing method and streamlined approach to healthcare facilities is also allowing us to install a 60 bed hospital ward in just 32 weeks - approximately half the time it would take to construct using traditional methods.

4. What do you believe the key benefits of modular construction are?

While there are many significant benefits to modular construction, the reduced project timeframe (up to 60% faster), tends to get the most airtime.

However, in addition to the speed of delivery, reduced timeframes also drive improvements in the statistics around Health & Safety by removing such a significant element of construction away from the finished site. This approach also minimises disruption during the construction process as the time on site is drastically reduced.

Minimising disruption is particularly important in and around live hospital and educational environments where there is a need to continue to manage everyday service provisions.

Projects completed in reduced timeframes also offer a faster return on investment and put residential projects into use much quicker, allow schools to open a year ahead of plan and provide critical care beds to the NHS or HSE in the shortest possible time.

Other really important benefits to modular construction are programme and cost certainty, quality and consistency of output and sustainable manufacturing. With regard to cost and programme certainty, factory manufacture and precision design ensure there is no slow down or down time experienced in a project driving certainty into the build schedule and removing costly project overruns.

Our precision manufacturing approach also ensures the highest levels of quality control and consistency. Adhering to ISO approved procedures around Quality Assurance means that there is a right first time approach to delivering quality and defect-free projects for our client base.

Modular construction is also leading the way in sustainable construction. The offsite process ensures less waste and higher building performance with a real benefit of knowing that as a client you are investing in a sustainable construction process from start to finish.

5. What innovations do you think we will see in the industry in the coming years?

A recent study shows that the population in London will exceed 10 million by 2030 and while the demand for city living is rising all the time, it is becoming increasingly unaffordable for many. We have been looking at this trend and we are in the process of developing an apartment model which can maximise the use of airspace in cities.

This allows those working on strategic development plans for cities to unlock thousands of acres of unused space by building upwards as opposed to outwards. This approach will provide potential strategic partners with economical and sustainable homes faster than traditional methods of construction.

We are also driving forward with more innovative manufacturing processes in order to maximise the premanufactured value (PMV) on all our projects. For the healthcare sector for example, driving PMV means the NHS or HSE will see tangible benefits around how quickly buildings become operational.

As part of our strategy around net zero carbon, we are looking at how we can continue to build carbon reducing strategies into our manufacturing process. We know that it is not enough to build homes quickly but that they must be delivered in an eco-friendly way, when we consider that 14% of the total UK emissions comes from energy usage in the home.

Our business success has been built on our ability to adapt and innovate in response to changing societal and client demands. We endeavour to continue to improve and enhance our offering in order to realise our ambition to contribute positively to our communities through the successful delivery of educational, healthcare and residential projects.

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