If you’re involved in the construction industry in any way, it probably feels like there’s been talk of the use of ‘modern methods of construction’ for ever. It has been happening and it’s been growing, but perhaps not to the extent many were forecasting a decade ago. But recently, there have been a number of interesting stories in the news that could indicate that this is now changing.
Just before Christmas there was a debate in the House of Lords, which saw an overwhelming majority of peers support the wider adoption of offsite construction and manufacturing on public construction projects to boost productivity, develop skills and meet housebuilding targets, as well as to improve build quality. The government was urged to support offsite manufacturing by purchasing components and materials for use in publicly funded projects and comments included: “it ought to be the obvious thing to do”.
Also in the news this month was the announcement that the Department for Education (DfE) plans to set up a £2bn offsite schools framework. This will run for four years, following on from the DfE’s existing component school frameworks, but will be open to a greater number of suppliers and different methods of offsite construction, including modular and portable buildings, kit buildings and prefabricated components. The DfE has said the new framework will be larger than the previous ones, and may have a target to deliver up to 100 new school projects a year by 2023, once finalised.
Barratt Homes also recently conducted a review into delivering sustainable housing through alternative offsite methods of construction, and have been working with timber frame supplier Stewart Milne to achieve their goal of delivering 20% of their housing portfolio using offsite construction. Barratt Developments has already built more than 3000 timber frame homes over the past two years through the collaboration.
The expansion of Heathrow airport is also being pitched as a key opportunity for offsite construction, as the focus will be on helping Heathrow deliver the expansion efficiently, sustainably and affordably and are specifically looking to the offsite sector to provide this.
The use of prefabricated components is already growing strongly in certain sectors, such as roofing systems, including products such as Smartroof, an insulated roof panel system made by the Keystone Group, and those offered by SIG’s Roofspace Solutions, which was very recently acquired by Saint Gobain UK & Ireland and provides a turnkey panelised roofing and loft conversion solutions to housebuilders. Other modular and prefabricated components that are already established and growing include steel-framed systems, roof trusses and timber frames.
While there are many advantages, such as increased productivity, better build quality and not having to rely on uncontrollable weather and other conditions on site, there are some barriers to the wider implementation of offsite. These are considered to be a lack of expertise in offsite techniques, high capital costs and the fact that offsite needs to be considered at a very early stage in the planning of any project.
But the existing and predicted labour shortages the UK are facing, and which may be exacerbated by a hard Brexit, also represent a key driver for moving towards offsite manufacture, as there may be a need to increase output and productivity with fewer people doing the work. The increasing use of BIM and changes to the way buildings are designed could also help, and there is always the opportunity to learn from experts in other countries, such as Scandinavia, where offsite manufacture has been commonplace for many years.
Either way, this momentum looks promising and, combined with potential problems on sites related to labour or skills shortages, this should lead to some positive developments in the sector during 2019.
MRA Research specialises in market research and insight within the UK construction industry, and can undertake focus groups and surveys targeting specifiers, such as architects and engineers, as well as influencers, decision makers and installers.