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The Great Debate – Is Offsite Construction the answer to the delivery challenge faced by the UK Construction Industry?

The Great Debate – Is Offsite Construction the answer to the delivery challenge faced by the UK Construction Industry?

With turnover predicted to reach £7billion by 2018 has the offsite construction sector finally found a place on the mainstream construction agenda?  Could it indeed make the difference to the UK construction industry in its quest to deliver 200,000 new homes per year as well as new schools, student accommodation, and commercial buildings?

The answer to these and other questions were the topic of two very lively debates at the recent inaugural offsite construction show.  The debates were hosted by The Fabric First Academy, for whom Mike Stevenson Development of founding partner Sidey set the scene.

“Being at an offsite construction show seemed to us to be the ideal opportunity to debate the merits of offsite construction in the context of the wider industry, the challenges it faces, and the positive benefits it can deliver to the UK construction industry as it seeks to deliver unprecedented levels of new homes, student accommodation buildings, schools and commercial buildings”.

“What we didn’t want was simply advocates of offsite construction saying how good it was – in fact we wanted the opposite.  We wanted to find out what a cross section of industry people really thought about it; I think it is fair to say that those who attended didn’t go home disappointed, and hopefully they went away with more information and knowledge than they came with”.

“Indeed knowledge is a great place to start.  We asked the question as to why – although the offsite sector is on course to hit £7billion by 2018 – there was still a resistance or reluctance to engage with this method of construction amongst so many”.

“The view from the panel was that there was a real knowledge gap when it came to offsite methods and understanding the achievable benefits of building this way.  Starting right at the beginning with architecture and design it was recognised that offsite did not form a big enough part of their learning, and very few architect’s practices actually design with offsite in mind from the outset; more so the appointed contractor looks at already agreed designs and only then see if offsite construction methods might be suitable to bring the scheme to life”.

“This is a really key point; with so many sites now in tight inner city and urban locations the restrictions are such that building traditionally is often at best extremely difficult & problematic but at times just unfeasible.  It is these restrictions – unaddressed at the outset – which can lead to costs running away from the agreed budget, and delivery times slipping away”.

“For clients facing the twin pressures of budget constraint and needing to deliver quickly budget slippage is simply not acceptable, and neither is late delivery with the demands upon them to provide accommodation for a growing population in need of their support.  Indeed  it is the very essence of what offsite construction can bring – cost and delivery predictability which is seeing more and more people sit up and take notice”.

“Stemming further from this was a realisation that the often spoken about labour and skills shortages are now really starting to bite, hitting not only on site, but actually in roles which are responsible for the design and development stages of building in the first place.  Again, the same message – there is a knowledge gap to be filled as well as a skills gap.  And talking of skills, according to the panel the UK construction industry is facing a loss of 700,000 construction personnel over the next five years through entirely natural processes”.

“The view was that delivering through offsite construction can reduce the labour requirement on any contract by up-to 25%, a number which could rise further as more construction is done this way”.

“But perhaps the biggest debate was why does there appear to be such a resistance at constructor level to engaging with offsite and then seeing it through to delivery?  Clearly there are many of the major construction companies now exploring offsite fully as they start to understand the benefits of cost predictability and delivery against those of traditional building methods and the need to guarantee their clients exactly what they ask for to an acceptable standard, on time and to budget”.

“Coming out loud and clear from the debates was the on-going disconnect between design teams and construction teams.  Too few of the buildings which are developed for offsite construction actually reach the site stages still as offsite manufactured schemes; yet the implications of this have been proven to be significant – with disappointed clients being upper most”.

“Undoubtedly design teams are increasingly starting to work collaboratively with the offsite sector to specify developed solutions which will deliver ‘as built’ buildings which perform as they were specified and designed to do in the first place, thus closing the renowned performance gap of circa 20%. This is in addition to projects delivered on time and to budget”.

“However contractors and developers seem to retain a very different view in too many instances, and see their role as being to ‘de-construct’ the design solutions; to break them down into their individual components for procurement purposes ‘because it is cheaper’.  This is entirely counter to the principles of offsite construction, which is all about solutions that ensure all the components work together, including the key joints and interfaces, to guarantee the performance of the structure. Who looks at a car and says right I can build that cheaper by sourcing all the components separately. It may look like the original design but it’s very unlikely to perform as well as the one sourced from the manufacturer”.

“This was an emotional area of debate, and the general feeling was that construction is not modern enough in its thinking; it is not collaborating enough; there’s too much conflict; the answers lay in the supply chain; constructors need to embrace working with the supply chain as a real positive”.

“Clearly this is a debate which is going to run and run”.

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