The visual impact of a building and how its façade and cladding system performs is crucial to its overall success and longevity. Building boards specialist RCM recently hosted a roundtable event discussing how the offsite sector specifies and approaches the external envelope.
With UK building regulation changes and post-Grenfell pressures surrounding durability, safety and long term value for money, the construction industry has had to do some hard thinking and reflection on how best to approach the external aspects of any building – especially multi-storey developments. The offsite sector has likewise had to absorb these changes into its dynamic manufacturing and supply chains.
A ‘fully integrated approach’ to the building envelope is essential to drive improved building performance and levels of productivity and while there are many challenging issues to grapple with – even for the traditional industry – there are also many opportunities ahead for offsite technology when approaching façade specification. As ever, for a truly successful project cycle, early engagement with clients, architects and engineers is critical, but is there sufficient understanding of the need to change specification and procurement methods from the trusted ‘traditional’ procurement route to an offsite path? Crucially, is there enough knowledge about offsite to make informed decisions about what lies ahead?
Building Regulation Changes
Impending changes to the Part L Building Regulation will have to be part of those informed decisions. “Early engagement is always better,” says Aneel Kilaire, Façade Consultant at Wintech. “The next Part L Regulation and issues surrounding thermal bridging is going to become even more important and having an offsite solution which is pre-designed – where the thermal bridges can be assessed and provide a standard solution – will be important.”
Traditional construction is often seen as a safe option, with architects and clients picking systems based on an aesthetic or visual design appeal, without thinking too much about the system that is going to eventually provide it. Style is everything and ‘as a manufacturer you are driven down a particular specification.’ What is often overlooked at this formative stage is the understanding of standardised layouts and systems, what works and importantly what doesn’t. “For a client to make the right choice they need to be informed in the right way,” says Wayne Yeomans, Head of Business Development, McAvoy Group. “The way building regulations are changing will see an impact on cost, material types and availability, and everyone including planners need to be informed about these changes and the effect on the options available.”
Planning departments in particular have come in for much criticism for a perceived inflexible approach to offsite manufacture. There is a feeling that they hold a particular mindset where they dictate the direction of a project or a product specification, without truly understanding what the ultimate impact of that decision is going to be. They are not the client and it is the client that ultimately is responsible for that building, so from a client perspective awareness is everything. While an organisation such as the Department for Education (DfE) is very aware of offsite’s strengths informed by a raft of technical committees and teams exploring the market, a group of residential clients for example, may not have the same levels of expertise and knowledge and end up being reliant on the industry telling them what to choose.
The quantity surveyor (QS) profession also has to change emphasis and think outside of the traditional bubble. “QS tend to deal in hard numbers,” says Trevor Richards, Director, Cogent Consultancy. “So having information that is reliable about the market and not speculative or anecdotal on performance and programme reductions is essential. As a consequence it is difficult for them to compute offsite.”
Illusion of Choice
The construction industry is blessed with many cladding and façade systems – all freely available for traditional building methods but for offsite systems, many of these are not viable – they can be too heavy or require another additional trade to install or ‘don’t sit within the objectives of fast track construction’. Overcoming the ‘illusion of choice’ means managing client expectations and explaining that not everything on the marketplace is available and that offsite manufacture requires standardised solutions with only a particular palette of products deemed suitable.
“It’s about moving away from a project mentality for a particular scheme,” says Mike Fairey, Director, Fusion Building Systems. “Manufacturing is about creating products in evolution over a period of time, with a continuous learning and development process, over a number of projects. You can then develop a consolidated supply chain that delivers that product at the lowest possible cost with a continuity of design and interface principles.” Adopting continuous improvement and early design decisions creates a situation where you learn steadily and problems don’t become systemic. It is all about ironing out inefficiencies through collaborative working.
Simply put, clients become better educated when using offsite systems on multiple schemes, where everything gathers momentum and becomes a clearer proposition for all involved. It is a tough challenge to persuade a sceptical client that this is the right thing to do – a new ‘entrant’ could be an offsite ‘convert’ in a few project’s time, so it’s worth the effort. Educating clients is a paramount concern for the future take-up of offsite manufacture so explaining to them what can be done with a ‘modicum of responsibility’ is critical. The offsite sector needs to prove there is less space to go wrong than through traditional methods.
Building specification and managing risk means everyone is now super cautious, especially with façades and cladding post-Grenfell. Specifiers and insurers are more cautious around the ‘boundaries of material use.’ “One of our concerns,” says Alan Robb, Partner, BENX. “Is that we see a lot of new products and technologies coming to market that may not have been fully tested to the extremes to demonstrate durability and fit-for-purpose characteristics.”
Building regulations can only cover so much ground and can be regarded as the ‘lowest point of entry’ to quality attainment – they are also seen as potentially divisive – written in isolation that change every few years and not updated in unison. “There is a focus on separate regulations – structure, fire acoustic, thermal etc,” says Stuart Norris, Technical Product Manager, MPBA/Portakabin. “But buildings are complicated things and as we face a climate emergency, they need to be smarter and fitter for the future and designed to save energy.” A concentration on ‘building specifics’ seems to be prevalent rather than the ‘building entirety’, consequently a more successful route via an all-encompassing ‘holistic approach’ is really required.
Building regulations deal with products and performance but rarely deal with process. The offsite sector could be pushing the government to ‘raise the bar as high as it can go’ with building performance. In controlled factory environments, higher targets surrounding quality, reliability and sustainability can be achieved without massive attaching massive premiums. Buildings designed and built on fabric first principles and energy efficient building envelope can futureproof construction and drive innovation.
A New Normal
For offsite methods to gain real traction, the key is to convince clients – and in the long run the general public – that it makes no difference whether the building is based on a ‘traditional’ or ‘offsite’ model – ultimately everything has to meet the same industry-wide regulations and accreditation. Perhaps it is time to dispel the ‘myth’ that offsite is ‘different’. The terminology is confusing: ‘every time we stick a different badge on it, we make it different and it causes a disturbance in the industry.’
The crux of the argument is that offsite methods need to stop identifying as different but portray itself as an optimum solution. It is time to showcase the benefits that offsite brings with solid data, statistics and evidence to back it up the claims. This is best done collaboratively. “Collaboration between a group of organisations working towards achieving a common goal is really important,” says Wayne Yeomans, whose McAvoy Group is a key partner in the Seismic Consortium, alongside Blacc, Bryden Wood, Elliot and the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC). “It’s really important, whether it’s for a new form of insulation or structural frame, or assessing cladding performance, that there should be a joined-up approach to testing and overall thinking.”
Increasingly there is a case to be made for several like-minded companies combining efforts. This has taken place within the Structural Timber Association (STA). “We have undertaken fire testing on behalf of our members,” says Andrew Orriss, STA Assurance Director, STA. “All members have different ways of building but it is very standardised and commoditised. But as an organisation we have provided our members with a ‘standard’ to work to. This new tool is due to be published in January 2020. The important point is that all the members now have a reference point on how to use timber frame and have realised that it is for the greater good of the sector. It also benefits smaller companies that individually could not afford to do that level of testing on their own.”
There is a commonly held view that there is a bottleneck in testing and accreditation in the UK. Waiting times for testing facility slots and final reports is far too long but there is also a gap in the training and competency of installers and how that risk is managed or regulated. Site work can see any number of interfaces between products and systems having to be dealt with onsite by sub-contractors. Does the industry need to evolve further before factory-fitted cladding solutions become viable both technically and commercially? One hinderance centres on the design pressures to make an offsite building look more like a traditional building and to ‘hide the modularity’.
Factory Fitting & Interfaces
It comes down to the size and scale of the building involved in dictating what the building envelope choice should be. With factory-fitted facades, concerns surround the various liabilities and who is responsible for what post factory-gate. “When the facades are fitted in the factory and then moved onsite the responsibility for the performance of the facades alters,” says Mike Fairey. So there is a contractual issue surrounding the façade installation onsite from the manufacturer installing it in the factory.” Product and system performance during manufacture and installation and how it then transfers onsite all have their own contractual liabilities and testing requirements. This again highlights risk surrounding testing and assessments and having to be ‘quite bespoke’ in the product you fit to create an overall system in the factory.
Quality of installation is certainly better managed when factory-fitted but when panels or units are moved onsite it is about interface management. This can open up various opportunities for criticism as the onsite finishing can end up being visually unappealing or plainly badly done. So while there is a fixation that everything has to be done in the factory, sometimes it would be easier and quicker to do part of the work onsite. The ‘happy medium is a partial install in the factory and final finish onsite’ with high levels of standardisation and understanding where the technical challenges rest.
Talking to clients and understanding what can get to market robustly in a reasonable time-line safely is the fundamental aim plus improving productivity and durability. “Having a system is one thing,” says Ian Quinton, Managing Director, RCM. “But the management of it is totally different, it is about competence, managing your end goal and to deliver that, having good key partners.”
Building the case for offsite should be easy with all of its benefits. As we face the requirements of creating a more sustainable, low carbon, energy efficient built environment, the daunting 2050 net zero carbon targets (ironically side lined and largely ignored by previous government administrations but once again de rigeur) can be met using offsite manufacture and create a real leap forward.
Clients and specifiers need to take advice in project planning and settle on working closely with project partners to better understand the drivers behind offsite manufacture and what works for the building envelope – both inside the factory and on the construction site. Whilst a considerable amount of research and development has gone into the design and construction of the internal and structural solutions within the offsite industry, the options for the external envelope are complex and varied. The building envelope starts from a visual perspective before technical and engineering considerations are factored in. Clients, specifiers and building designers need to adopt a more holistic ‘educated approach’ to assessing the uses and inherent risk of various offsite systems and the various façade interfaces.
Markets are moving and shifting shape and the testing and accreditation industry needs to reflect the pioneering amount of work going on in this space. The offsite sector is fertile ground for technology investment and is changing the commercial model of construction, but building regulations are not moving at the same pace as the offsite construction industry – this is a serious failing by government and needs to be addressed.
Undoubtedly procurement behaviour needs to change. There is still a struggle with clients trying to procure ‘new things in an old way’. Big questions surround low levels of productivity across UK business as a whole and although the questions and answers are difficult to fully pin down, it is vital to understand that ‘productivity creates its own currency’ and remembering that it has a direct correlation to cost.
As the offsite industry booms it is important to realise the simple truth: a client wants a system that works, delivers a compliant solution that meets all requirements and regulations, at the right price and is delivered when and where they need it. But like all meaningful change this will take time. Many thanks to RCM for hosting the Roundtable Event and thanks to all participants for their time and contributions to the discussion. For more information on RCM visit: www.buildingboards.co.uk. For more information on offsite related activity visit: www.offsitehub.co.uk