Procurement models must change and construction firms must overcome a “lack of trust” if offsite construction is to become a success, a parliamentary inquiry has been told.
The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee heard evidence from a series of expert witnesses as part of its first evidence session looking at the challenges involved in offsite manufacture for construction.
Phil Wilbraham, expansion programme director, Heathrow Airport (pictured right), who is leading the construction of the third runway, said that early client involvement was key to making offsite manufacturing more common.
Explaining the benefits of offsite manufacture, from reduced cost and time, to improved quality and health and safety standards, he said it was crucial clients specified offsite construction methods early.
He told peers: "It is so important that the first stage of the design is carried out with offsite manufacturers in mind because otherwise designers will generally design the way they have always designed and we will get the same answers.
"The real win here is if components are made in factory and are the same again and again."
He added that using offsite methods fundamentally changed the way in which construction sites work, requiring new skills and a different approach.
He said: “There has to be really good logistics between the site and the factory. The factory will want to work at the speed it wants to work at to make it efficient and cheaper but you have then got to tie that in with how fast you can build on site.
“So construction becomes about logistics and assembly rather than traditional construction where there are lots of people doing their different trades on the site. We do need to change the skillset of people."
Getting clients on board
Professor Jennifer Whyte, director of the Centre for Systems Engineering and Innovation at Imperial College London (pictured left) also highlighted the importance of clients getting on board, as well as the need to change the way in which work was procured.
"You cannot change technologies in production without changing business and procurement models. We have known that for a while," she said.
She added that there were pockets of excellence in offsite manufacturing in the UK but the question was why others were not following, which she put down to business and procurement models.
And she called for more research and training to help realise the sector’s potential.
"There is a need for a fundamental research base as we move to more digital fabrication techniques,” she said.
“There are opportunities around technologies like AI and robotics as we move forward that I think is important that we have a research base to support. We also need a skills base to support advanced manufacturing techniques.”
Wilbraham pointed out that the government needed to show more commitment to offsite construction as a client.
He said: “Government clients are the big clients and the ones that need to help us to get to a point where these factories then become efficient because if there isn't efficiency in the factories then this won't become cheaper and we will go back to doing things the way we have always done it."
GLA sees new offsite drivers
Meanwhile, Jamie Ratcliff, assistant director, Greater London Authority said there was a need for offsite manufacture but also several major barriers.
He said: "From a housing point of view, if we are serious about the building the homes the country needs, we are just not going to do it through traditional construction."
He also saw drivers for its use emerging, such as the Build To Rent sector, where clients are keen to shave as much time off construction as possible in order to gain as much rent from the building as quickly as possible – an incentive that doesn’t exist in the same way for developers who are building to sell.
And he saw advantages to offsite construction on small sites where traditional construction methods are very expensive.
But he added that a lack of trust among construction firms was hampering progress.
He said: "One challenge that is really fundamental to the way the construction industry works is that it is just really bad at partnerships and collaboration.
“People don't trust each other and to make this work you do need that trust relationship and you do need to work together at an early stage. You need to commit to it and you need to depend on your partners and work through the problems and for whatever reasons culturally lots of people in construction find that very difficult.
"You will also hear a lot of discussion around innovative technologies not being tried and tested and there being problems with them but I just don't buy that.
“Mostly we are not talking about fantastical things like aerogel. It is tried and tested ways of building homes three different ways: timber frame buildings which have been around for thousands of years, steel frame buildings which have been around for 150 years and concrete frame buildings which have been around for 125 years."
'Cottage industry', says Willmott Dixon
Tim Carey, national product director, at Willmott Dixon said offsite construction was still “very much a cottage industry.”
“A lot of the offsite manufacturers want to scale up and want to invest but there isn't the certainty,” he said.
"In any other industry we wouldn't choose to construct something in the way that we do in construction. We wouldn't build an aeroplane on the runway.”
He added that offsite manufacture was hampered by all the different design standards that firms needed to work to.
"There is a lack of harmonisation of design standards, particular in the affordable sector. To get to scale and efficiency it makes it more difficult then it could otherwise be. If we could solve that problem then we could really get volume,” he said.
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