9th September, 2021

Wates Construction Group recently appointed Inna Lim as its new Strategy and Integration Director. We caught up with her to find out more about emerging technologies, innovation and championing more offsite manufacture.

Q: As new Strategy and Integration Director at Wates, can you say more about the role and what you want to achieve with it?

Inna Lim (IL): I am accountable for driving a new integrated business across the Wates Construction Group. This a new role and together with key members from our engineering and specialist businesses – SES Engineering Services, Wates Building Services, Wates Dry Lining Services and Prism Offsite Manufacturing – we aim to create a unique market offering that gives Wates Group a competitive advantage across a number of sectors. Most importantly, I want to help our organisation offer construction and engineering solutions that are built around our customers’ needs. So, starting with the customers and end users in mind and then working backwards to our pre-construction and operational activities.

Q: What are the benefits of integrating the four businesses and what do you hope to achieve?

IL: Ultimately, this is about delivering efficiencies and adding value for our clients and business. But it’s also responding to a range of challenges UK construction companies face today – be it pandemic-related or age-old problems relating to efficiency and quality. Our primary objective here is to share the technical expertise, capabilities and thinking from our four specialist businesses within the Wates Construction Group. Our industry peers continue to approach offsite manufacturing as an isolated concept, but we plan to dominate this space by enhancing our existing offsite facility, Prism, and developing a fully integrated in-house capability of smart offsite solutions. This will provide our customers with rapid and optimum solutions and support during the project’s life cycle.

Q: Prism has been hugely successful in delivering prefabricated MEP with a modular approach – will the facility be developed further and is offsite MEP still not fully understood by the wider construction industry?

IL: We’re putting a lot of energy into enhancing the capabilities and capacity of our Prism facility – particularly around enhancing our offer through a more standardised approach. Currently our solutions are quite bespoke, so we’re heading towards a more ‘kit of parts’ approach, where at a project’s inception our construction partners, both internally and externally, could select a product that could drive the design and architecture of the rest of the building. This would naturally lead to upgrades within the factory in terms of the products we deliver. In terms of whether offsite MEP is fully understood, I’d say most understand its importance but conveying value for money vs a traditional approach can sometimes prove difficult, since the comparison doesn’t happen across the entire value chain of the project delivery.

Q: The use of technology and digital tools within factory environments is central to offsite manufacture – is this the future of offsite’s successful wider adoption and how is the Construction Group and the wider business driving this?

IL: Technology and digital tools are crucial to any industry but for offsite they aren’t central to future adoption. Though very important, the success of offsite depends on industry players – especially our customers’ mandating offsite as the only delivery option for their projects. The construction industry must also understand how to integrate offsite early on, and digital tech will play a massive role in supporting that early engagement. For example, if we had a standardised ‘kit of parts’, we would have digital information held on each of our products. If we were then engaged early, we would be able to freely share that digital information with our construction partners as part of the design process, giving our clients a rich source of project information from day one.  

Q: The type of skills required in the modern construction industry is changing rapidly – not least in the use of digital tools (BIM/AI/VR) being more important than ever – is that a fair assessment?

IL: Yes! Certainly, from an offsite, building services and digital perspective. Part of the challenge is that the broad range of skills required are extraordinarily high and hard to come by. You could, for example, have a skilled digital engineer, who knows little about the intricacies of building service installation, and this is where our integrated offer comes back in because we have all those different skill sets within the four businesses. By aligning those capabilities there’s a clear route for those skilled staff members to work together to find the best solution for a job.  

Q: The construction industry is under huge pressure to reduce energy consumption and change material use to meet the UK’s net zero targets. How will the integrated businesses deliver a more energy-efficient built environment?

IL: An exciting part of the integrated business is the sustainability experts we have on offer – from smart building specialists to environmental engineers and sustainability specialists – who can work together to engineer the most efficient building from a building services perspective. By working alongside our construction colleagues early on, our integrated team can run models and come up with an optimum solution to help support energy efficiency on projects. For example, we might be able to advise on certain tweaks that could benefit the running of a building, such as altering the G-value of its windows, which could reduce the need for excessive air conditioning and heating systems, which is hugely important from an energy-efficiency standpoint.

Q: The built environment is going through a huge period of change – not least with issues surrounding boosting quality and productivity. What other forces are driving change and what role will the integrated businesses play in solving these issues?

IL: The built environment has been going through a period of change for quite some time now. Issues around quality and productivity were identified as early as 1934 by Alfred Bossom, who said UK construction was a wasteful industry where construction took too long, was too expensive and was not satisfactory for its clients. Wates Construction’s solution to this is to focus on our people, productivity, and partners. We’re 100% dedicated to our people and passionate about helping them grow and advance. We’re currently going through a productivity revolution, looking at our processes and delivery, including – of course – a huge focus on offsite. And, lastly, we always strive to understand exactly what our partners and client base want, working with them to deliver. 

Q: In a post-pandemic world encouraged to ‘Build Back Better’ – how do you see the offsite sector contributing over the next 18 months and what technologies and innovation do you see emerging?

IL: There are numerous ways offsite will contribute to ‘Build Back Better’, with technology playing a key role. Post-pandemic, the impacts of supply chain constraints and product supply, for example, will be challenging, but offsite takes away a lot of those risks since we’re not exposed to the same labour and resource constraints as traditional builds. Collaboration will also be critical, and we’ve invested heavily in digital collaboration tools, such as building a 360-degree immersive workspace, for our customers, supply chain partners and internal teams to work together to thoroughly understand a project, from design and efficiency to logistics and engineering. Looking ahead, there’s a whole host of future applications for this tech such as virtual training or creating digital twins of buildings. 

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