The psychological tic that’s holding offsite construction back

23rd December, 2019

Kier preconstruction director for strategic projects Jamie Hillier considers the psychological bias preventing the industry from seeing the creative possibilities of offsite manufacturing

When evaluating a specific topic, concept, method or decision, our thinking is often strongly influenced by what is personally most relevant, recent or vivid. If people truly understood their chances of winning the lottery, many would never buy a ticket. But being regularly reminded of those lucky winners gives an undue self-assurance that next time "it could be you".

In behavioural science, this human tendency is known as availability bias. Frequently, this means some of the opinions and attitudes we have are given more weight than they should realistically have.

"A change of mindset would enable us to generate creative solutions"

Offsite manufacturing's perceived association with architecturally constrained design is a symptom of its historical brief, namely its use as a temporary-housing solution to address the post-Second World War housing shortage.

This readily recalled strategy has led to the enduring misconception that prefabrication equates to uninspiring design.

The stigma remains sufficiently common that the House of Lords felt the need to ask: "Can the benefits of standardisation and factory manufacture be realised without hampering architectural ambition? If so, how?"

By identifying instances in which this particular bias appears, we can attempt to introduce more balanced thinking on the issue. It is also useful to recall recent examples of offsite manufacturing empowering architectural design.

Aim to stimulate and engage

Often, we are unaware of the use of manufactured components in projects. A review of buildings shortlisted for the RIBA Stirling Prize since 2011 reveals that both traditional and modern methods of construction, including component-led and manufactured solutions, have been awarded.

Buildings are not only judged on their architectural merits, but also on their capacity to "stimulate, engage and delight occupants and visitors". This year, the stunning, RIBA-shortlisted London Bridge Station was constructed using precast concrete platform sections, as well as 1,100 aluminium roof cassettes preassembled offsite.

Designed for operational excellence, the scheme illustrates how creativity can be channelled to deliver a component-based approach within a sensitive refurbishment scheme without compromising design, but indeed enhancing it.
By thinking of offsite manufacturing, not as a barrier to design, but something that is at the heart of it, we can create a new availability bias.

This change of mindset would enable us to generate opportunities to realise creative solutions that could be delivered with less waste, improved quality and increased safety.

Offsite manufacturing has the capacity to be an enabler for complex geometries (such as Zaha Hadid Architects' One Thousand Museum in Miami) and facilitate, not inhibit, architectural ambition.

By raising awareness of its flexibility, future adaptability and architectural potential to both experienced and new generations of architects, we can replace old assumptions and make it easier for people to recall positive outcomes.

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