After a turbulent few years, confidence is returning within the construction world with interest in offsite construction in particular on the rise. Futurebuild and Offsite Magazine recently hosted a special 'think tank' session to discuss progress and understand what the future may hold.
The Construction Sector Deal published in July sets out a clear and ambitious plan to progress the adoption of offsite construction to meet key governmental targets in a number of areas, including housing, education and healthcare. But many consider this to be the latest in a line of promises which, that without positive action, will do little to continue the forward momentum being experienced across the sector.
Futurebuild's whole ethos is to bring together opinion-shapers, decision-makers and product innovators to debate the biggest issues, and central to this is the future of offsite. With this in mind, one of the key questions posed to the think tank was what needs to be done to make sure offsite techniques are adopted more widely by clients and contractors?
Losing the Disguise
There's been a real shift in recent years from "disguising" volumetric modules to "celebrating" the expression of the module, according to Philip Breese, Senior Partner at Weston Williamson + Partners. This has shaken off past beliefs that offsite construction was a "dirty secret" as Brian Alborough, Director at Geraghty Taylor put it. But this has only been possible with the buy-in from a growing number of architects, who are without doubt some of the most influential decision makers when it comes to any project.
In fact, Paul Tierney, Managing Director at Extraspace, said he has seen: "a seismic shift, particularly in the last 12 to 18 months, where we're being asked by architects to come in to talk to them," rather than going out and knocking on doors to try to convince them to sign up to offsite projects. He added that his company is seeing more "intelligent" thinking from architects and clients who are designing from the outset with offsite construction techniques in mind.
While Darren Richards, think tank Chair and Cogent Consulting Managing Director noted, it's now seen as "aspirational" to be seen to be talking about offsite, the question remains as to how the recent increase in architects adopting and championing the idea of offsite can be translated more widely across the profession.
A lot of the discussion focused around the role of RIBA and how it can further engage its members. Past RIBA president, Jane Duncan, previously stated in the Design for Manufacture and Assembly overlay to the Plan of Work, that bodies such as Buildoffsite have been part of: "driving initiatives nudging us towards the next major transformation in how we construct buildings." But added that: "the tipping point, where we fundamentally change the culture around how we design for construction, has still to be reached." Despite this declaration of intent by RIBA, Darren Richards believes the organisation is not sufficiently engaged at a strategic level and that: "the offsite sector needs to bring them to the top table because they're still massively influential in the architectural arena and also on procurement. We need to ensure that the architects of the future are trained to embrace offsite technology and that it becomes core to good building design and delivery."
Although they're a key link in the chain, it isn't just architects who are vital to progressing the growth of offsite. Nick Milestone, Associate Director at the William Hare Group, told said he's been knocking on the doors of architects for 10 years, but then you hit the problem of the principal contractor who didn't understand the offsite cost model and say they could complete the project using traditional methods for less money.
He said with more architects and developers getting on board with offsite techniques, there's been another "huge shift" among this group and his company is now being called in more because there's finally some recognition that: "we've not only got a skills shortage and a lack of knowledge, we don't know what's going to happen post March 2019." If Brexit means we lose access to the number of skilled overseas workers we need for traditional construction, then we have to go further towards offsite and there's a lot of political movement to stimulate parts of the UK with increased manufacturing.
Winning over contractors is clearly a key part of the challenge that lies ahead, and the idea of greater integration and collaboration from the outset is one which offers a solution to the problem. Jason Powell, Head of Offsite Manufacturing at the Accord Group and Local Homes, said his organisation hit the same issue with contractors on external projects. They didn't understand the cost model and claimed they could complete projects more cheaply using traditional methods.
Accord Group's approach was to bring everyone around the table and build a partnership with like-minded contractors who want to move in the same direction. He added: "you have to be integrated as a team, internally or externally, you've got to work together, and if you can get everyone round the table from the very beginning it is a much simpler process and everyone has a fair say."
Who's in charge?
If we're seeing this behavioural shift in both architects and principal contractors towards offsite construction, who is responsible for making sure the uptake continues on this upward trajectory? Does the government's Construction Sector Deal go far enough in championing offsite? This is an issue which clearly divides opinion and one where personal preference plays a key part.
Jeff Maxted, Director of Technical Consultancy at BLP Insurance, believes the government has a big part to play in promoting offsite and they need to deliver: "a substantial, sustainable pipeline to encourage people to produce." He said that: "without that we will tick along but we won't see the growth we need." This idea of supporting a pipeline, over adopting the approach of subsidies was one which received widespread support from the panel.
Brian Maunder from Totally Modular says the local authorities and registered providers he's engaged with are "frustrated" with central government, despite the fact they've done: "more in the last 18 months than they've ever done." He said the delivery programme is changing and there are some local authorities looking for real partnership, some of which will be established through official joint ventures and some unofficial.
But some believe local authorities themselves have more of a role to play in the smooth implementation of offsite. The challenges presented by procurement are a big factor here. Paul Tierney said when it comes to residential projects, traditional procurement methods just don't work. He believes delivery teams understand offsite, but procurement teams "can't get their heads around it." Brian Maunder revealed he'd refused a local authority tender request on one project, as there's no benefit to being squeezed to the point of not being able to make any money when you have significant manufacturing facility overheads to recover.
Brian Alborough added that commercial businesses are also now key influencers in this area. He said we need to recognise that these firms are disruptors, in the same way offsite is, and there needs to be a collective effort, particularly in the Build to Rent sector to make sure nobody goes down the traditional route, as it no longer makes sense.
Confidence is Key
Despite the fact that the overwhelming sense around offsite and its future is positive, there is still unquestionably a delay to wider adoption. One word which kept being repeated during the discussions was confidence, and confidence across a number of areas. Chris Holleron, Group Product Manager for Construction at the Hadley Group, believes there's still a lack of confidence around the size of many offsite manufacturing companies to be able to reliably deliver on a significant scale. He said a lot of people have approached many within the offsite sector with plans to build homes, but clients: "haven't got the confidence in who they are and what they can produce."
Darren Richards said this often boils down to financial stability, a sentiment echoed by Brian Maunder. He highlighted the fact that offsite construction is competing with multi-billion pound organisations and despite being "minnows, we're now playing with the big boys." It's all about transitioning from niche to the mainstream, which requires confidence in mortgageability and balance sheets, alongside credibility.
Philip Breese believes that, even though big steps have been made in recent years, there's still a lot of work to do when it comes to confidence in products and the longevity they offer. Research carried out by Futurebuild ahead of this year's event showed there's still a great deal of confusion around offsite homes, with a fifth of consumers surveyed believing it is of poor quality. It's a fact that people want to know that the homes they're buying or renting are durable and can stand the test of time with minimal maintenance. The people involved in building those properties need the same assurances.
This is where the idea of certification can play a key role in providing reassurance to lenders and investors. A simple internet search shows that at present there's a variety of accreditations companies can apply for and it's a confusing picture. Jeff Maxted says this is impacting confidence across the board and he's been working with a group chaired by Mark Farmer on behalf of the Housing Minister to come up with a single accreditation scheme, based on the Build Offsite Property Assurance Scheme (BOPAS), which major warranty providers would sign up to. The details of this are expected to be released later this year.
Better education about the benefits of offsite manufacture was identified as a key stumbling block to progress. Getting architects on board with offsite is one part of the puzzle, but the idea of getting everyone involved from the earliest stages of planning a project was highlighted by Ben Drake, Associate at Peter Dann. He said that as a structural engineer there's a real need to consider offsite from the beginning to get the starting point right. It is inefficient to implement offsite elements retrospectively and being brought in at a later point often creates unnecessary hurdles. But crucially it's also important to recognise that not: "every part of every project is suitable for offsite."
This is something which Brian Alborough agreed with, and said certain types of offsite are going work with some schemes but not with others. He said for example there are instances where companies or designers might try to force cross laminated timber (CLT) because it's what they know and understand, when in fact steel frame or volumetric might be a better solution. He warned that it's only going to take: "a couple of schemes to fail, for the entire industry to be discredited." It is key to recognise the huge reputational risk that's being taken and make sure the right systems are being used for the right projects.
Recipe for Success
The final question surrounded confidence in the offsite supply-chain when it comes to future market share growth and whether the current upwards trajectory can be maintained. A number of people expressed the need to communicate outwardly that their businesses are in it for the long-term. In order to continue to grow there needs to be a belief that businesses will survive no matter what bumps in the road they encounter. "We're more confident than we've ever been," was the resounding message from Paul Tierney and this sentiment was shared by a number of people around the table. But this confidence is driven by a level of support from lenders who share the optimism in his business and are happy to work collaboratively in order to progress.
Nick Milestone said the William Hare Group wants to diversify its risk portfolio and be market opportunistic, engaging with the right materials and players. He said their approach is to spread the net far, which is possible because the group is backed with brand equity and a balance sheet.
This idea of having tangible results to back up a business was repeated a number of times - people want proof of success in order to be able to buy into offsite in the future. This is where Futurebuild comes in. The physical Offsite Hub is much more than an opportunity for people within the industry to come together and share ideas and innovation, it offers a platform to put offsite on the wider agenda and drive cross sector collaboration. It answers the questions of how to further engage architects, contractors, local authorities, housing associations and developers whilst allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the very best the offsite sector has to offer.
To find out more about exhibiting in the Offsite Hub at Futurebuild visit: www.futurebuild.co.uk
Futurebuild 2019 - the evolution of ecobuild
At Futurebuild 2019, opinion-shapers, decision-makers and product innovators will join together under a common purpose to explore the latest technologies and approaches, and debate the biggest issues facing the built environment - now and in the future - both in the UK and overseas.
This ethos will be brought to life through six Futurebuild Hubs. Providing dedicated platforms that unite sector-specific experts and innovators with leading brands and organisations, the Hubs are the place to showcase innovation and launch and promote products with highly engaged audiences. Home to focused education, research and inspiration, the Hubs enable visitors to prepare for tomorrow by taking action today.
The Futurebuild Hubs surround the central ecobuild conference, which will sit at the heart of the event. This ideas arena will challenge industry to 'think the unthinkable' with a programme of inspiring speakers and game-changing discussions - all focused on examining and sparking action on the most important, far-reaching societal and environmental issues.
Over 26,500 decision-makers will descend on London's ExCeL, London, from 05-07 March 2019 to learn about the latest products and collaborate around delivering improved results. Learn more at: www.futurebuild.co.uk