It is time for more offsite methodology and thinking to be introduced into architectural study, says Nigel Ostime, Delivery Director, Hawkins\Brown Architects, who is part of a new wave of industry specialists introducing educational change in the way we design buildings.
Over the last few months, alongside other architect members of Buildoffsite, I have had the pleasure of collaborating with Oxford Brookes School of Architecture to help them develop a one-year module in Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) and modern methods of construction (MMC) for their post graduate diploma course.
Along with developing an understanding of digital technology, we see this as mission-critical for both the construction industry and the profession. This sentiment is echoed in the title of the influential 2016 report by the government's MMC champion Mark Farmer: 'Modernise or Die'. The change in approach to design of the built environment needs to be introduced at an early stage in architects' development and integrated into the design process.
Closely aligned to this manufacturingled approach is standardisation, which can both improve productivity and free up designers to focus on the areas they can bring greater value like placemaking, beauty and improved functionality. There has been disquiet voiced by some members of the profession regarding the aesthetic challenges modular construction can bring, but this should not be a barrier to good design, providing it is considered at an early stage.
It is critical that architects get involved in the current conversation about offsite rather than protesting a perceived loss of design freedom. This requires a proper understanding of the process of designing for offsite and the opportunities it presents. If the use of MMC is to be sustained it must be introduced at an early stage in architects' career and as such needs to be addressed during their education.
In the two decades up to 2015 productivity in manufacturing nearly doubled, whilst in construction it virtually flatlined (McKinsey report 'Reinventing Construction', 2017) and there seems to have been no significant change in the five years since. This lack of productivity and the industry's insistence on 'race to the bottom', cost-led procurement has kept margins low and inhibited the necessary inward investment required to improve.
Implementing a manufacturing ethos into construction could be transformative. Offsite is not suitable for all projects but most can adopt a percentage of the build using it. The term 'pre-manufactured value' (PMV) denotes the amount of offsite there is in a project. At the top end of the scale, a Category 1, fully volumetric project might achieve 75-80% PMV. It is however just one of the five categories of MMC the government defined in 2019. Designers need to understand all of them and bring them to bear on their projects to bring the benefits in cost, programme, quality, safety and productivity that can be accrued. There is no right amount of PMV but architects should keep an open mind and look for opportunities to optimise it.
Architectural education today
Architects' training typically consists of a three-year degree (RIBA Part 1), followed by a year in practice and a further two years for a post graduate diploma (RIBA Part 2). To achieve professional qualification students then need to undertake a minimum of one further year in practice and pass their professional exams (RIBA Part 3). The five years in university are mainly focussed on design which is taught through a combination of theory and practice. Theory is in the form of lectures and practice through design projects.
Course content has changed to some extent to reflect current concerns such as climate emergency and technology but has remained substantially the same for decades. The focus is largely on design as a pure discipline; developing skills to enable the brief to be examined and a creative design solution generated. Creativity and the exploration of design ideas – the development of individual expression - is allowed to develop without being overly constrained by the realities of cost and design process. The result is that the UK produces some of the most creative architects in the world and a profession that exports successfully in the global market. But UK clients and (particularly) contractors complain that we lack the project management and technical competency required in the delivery stage of the project. And a concern voiced by many practitioners is that students emerge from academia lacking the practical skills required in the workplace.
What do architects need to know?
One way to address these issues is for architecture courses to teach the fundamentals of offsite design and manufacturing. At one end of the scale this could be a series of lectures on the DfMA approach as set out in the RIBA's DfMA Plan of Work Overlay published in 2016, followed up with integration into the students' design projects. This should be aligned with more detailed learning on the MMC categories and how to assess which would be appropriate for a particular site and project brief. This knowledge might include an understanding of market capabilities, enough to undertake a light-touch optioneering assessment at the start of the design process (equivalent to RIBA Stage 2 Concept Design).
Such a light-touch approach could be implemented by all schools of architecture with little preparation and cost. It would ideally be accompanied by a closer relationship with industry, specifically with manufacturers, as well as consultants. It does however require a change in mindset for the design process, and this is fundamental. Designers need to integrate the method of construction at the start of the design process, not merely after planning approval. In the real world there are procurement barriers to this approach, but as a design philosophy it is an important starting point. Designers need to understand these procurement barriers – particularly with Design & Build – and be armed with the knowledge of how to persuade clients of the benefits of a DfMA approach. This subject has been covered in the Housing Forum's 'MMC for affordable housing developers' (2019).
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