Changing Construction’s Focus

22nd May, 2020

Reds10 Chairman Matt Bennion picks out some of the unsung benefits of using offsite delivery, as the UK struggles to combat Covid-19 and changes in how construction sites are staffed and managed.

Shorter programmes, earlier revenue streams, better quality, just three of the well-rehearsed benefits that advocates of offsite modular construction talk of. All are true, but Covid-19 has shone a light on a raft of other benefits, which to date have seemed intangible or have simply not been valued.

The press has been alive with good news stories of how the offsite industry has provided temporary space solutions for hospitals, prisons, mobile testing centres and sadly mortuaries, quickly meeting the demand that traditional approaches cannot fulfil. This is not new news. What is new is the criticism of working practices on traditional construction sites and the pushback of members of the public, unions and workers alike who object to images of construction workers breaching social distancing measures on overcrowded sites and hundreds of workers crammed into tube trains trying to reach their place of work.

It is criticism that is hard to argue with because despite huge improvements that have been made in health and safety and wellbeing on construction sites generally, the simple truth is that physical constraints and the use of conventional building materials and methods render social distancing virtually impossible on many traditional sites. This was reaffirmed by the likes of Mace reporting between 30-60% output in the first few weeks of re-opening its sites and an aspiration to grow this to 80% in the coming months.

In late April we saw Redrow restarting its sites with additional Covid-19 supervisors and representatives from Build UK were in talks with the Local Government Association to facilitate the extension of permitted working hours for construction sites across the country. At the same time, contractors were calling for parking restrictions to be relaxed in London to make it easier for construction workers to travel to sites by car.

What is clear is that the Covid-19 issue will stay with us for the foreseeable future, so as well as the more tangible benefits of speed and quality we should also be talking up the very significant and often unsung benefits of offsite volumetric modular.

For a start, offsite manufacture and assembly is controlled , process driven, follows a flow and is  increasingly automated. Pre-assembly and assembly lines require less labour and social distancing is already an integral part of the production line. Working at height and the need for operatives to collectively handle materials into position has all but been designed out and materials are held in stock which reduces the number of deliveries and help to reduce the embodied carbon in buildings.

Volumetric buildings are now completed with 90% pre-manufactured value and so largely complete buildings are lifted precisely into position and completed on-site with minimal labour, far fewer deliveries, less materials that reduce much needed circulation space piled up on-site and much, much less waste. The outcome is construction sites that not only have less operative hours spent working on high risk activities but also bring safe working distances by design and have a much lower impact on local communities.

In an offsite construction factory, labour is drawn from local communities and travel that could cause the ongoing spread of infection are significantly less. Factory labour tends to be on the books and therefore less susceptible to the uncertainties that have beset self-employed workers.  That is not to pretend that offsite construction would have avoided all disruption, but the truth is that offsite factories and contractors were still producing buildings and working on-site while traditional construction sites were closed.

The impact of site closures will affect society long after current social distancing measures are removed. But let us take this time that Covid-19 has enforced upon us, to reflect on the benefits of offsite modular construction and reinforce it benefits to clients and genuinely transform our industry for the good.

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