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Manufacturing Construction: Special Report

The B1M | 47:04

Manufacturing Construction: Special Report

Fred Mills

28 August 2019

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In our first ever special report, The B1M’s co-founder Fred Mills explores the rise of “offsite manufacturing” and its impact on the construction sector. Produced over the past 12 months, the film is the longest form content production by The B1M to date and features Fred investigating the challenges and opportunities of offsite approaches with leading industry figures.

THE construction industry shapes our world.

From the buildings that we call home to our work places, the roads and railway lines that we travel on, the infrastructure that enables transportation and generates our power, and the environments where we nurture, the construction sector has a fundamental impact on every aspect of our society.

For centuries, the way we build our world has remained largely unchanged. We use many of the same materials and processes. We still build a prototype structure in its final location, on a site that is always unique, at the mercy of our surroundings and the elements.

Though, the concept of developing structures away from their sites is nothing new, our changing cultures, rapidly expanding population, shifting workforce demographics and ever more technological world, are now heralding a new dawn for the concept of offsite techniques and seeing take a decided shift toward the world of manufacturing.

So, could these approaches truly transform construction? Could they improve quality, cut costs and raise productivity, while helping us tackle issues like the lack of skills coming into the sector and the housing crises facing many nations? And why, if the benefits are so compelling, have we not seen widespread uptake to date?

PROTOTYPES EVERYTIME

Unlike almost every other sector that delivers physical products to its customers and end users, construction creates unique products, in unique outdoor locations every time it delivers.

While some buildings and structures can be constructed repetitively using the same designs and materials – such as restaurants, hotels or prisons – no two sites are identical. As such, the industry is in effect always delivering prototype products for its customers, while striving to achieve quality, efficiency and a safe working environment without disrupting surrounding communities.

Above: Construction delivers for its customers by creating unique products, in unique outdoor locations.

Approaching the design and construction process with an offsite mindset that is much closer to the concept of manufacturing, enables work to be moved away from the unique challenges of each job site and into controlled conditions.

Here, economies of scale can be achieved through production lines that embrace automation and use standardised elements.

By having teams focused on producing specific aspects of a building component, repeatedly, under the same conditions, productivity can be increased and quality can be substantially improved reducing the number of defects in the completed building.

There is also the benefit of reducing time spent on site where the costs of providing temporary power, accommodation and facilities can quickly add-up and where the potential for disruption is high.

While some of these time and cost savings are of course off-set or occasionally even cancelled-out by other elements of the process, the benefits of moving away from the site environment are still compelling.

Above: The B1M's Fred Mills talking to Mark Farmer, Chief Executive of Cast Consultancy, about offsite techniques.

Quite aside from the advantages in delivery, offsite approaches appear to provide attractive solutions to a number of the challenges currently facing our wider society.

These techniques could allow housing to be delivered more rapidly in high-density urban areas, helping to tackle the housing crises currently facing many developed nations. They could also enable the fast construction of infrastructure projects, enabling new and emerging communities to grow and flourish.

An underlying contributor to the housing crisis currently facing the United Kingdom (UK) is a lack of skilled operatives entering the construction workforce. Offsite approaches could reduce the demand for labour capable of constructing homes with traditional methods.

TAKING WORKS AWAY FROM SITE

The extent to which works are taken away from construction sites varies significantly.

At one end of the spectrum, volumetric solutions create entire enclosed spaces in a factory and then deliver those to site for installation or assembly with other similar elements. Some buildings may incorporate a degree of volumetric construction in the form of bathroom pods or plant spaces.

Conversely, non-volumetric systems are large elements of a building or structure that are pre-fabricated before being brought to site.

Panelised systems such as cross laminated timber (CLT) or structurally insulated panel systems (known as SIPS) fall into this category. As do unitised facades and large pre-cast concrete elements.

Above: The B1M's Fred Mills (right) exploring SIPS manufacture with Pete Blunt (left) at Innovare Systems' factory in Coventry, UK.

Finally, component-based approaches take the concept to a far more granular level, effectively creating a “kit of parts” and drawing on a series of pre-determined items that can be produced, delivered to site, installed, operated and maintained with ease.

GLOBAL ADOPTION

Around the world, numerous countries, governments, organisations and suppliers have embraced offsite approaches.

In Singapore, the country’s construction regulator has introduced a mandatory target that 65% of high-rise building superstructures should use prefabricated pre-finished modular construction.

The project team working on the Crowne Plaza Hotel extension at Singapore’s Changi Airport, claim that embracing this approach reduced the number of operatives on site by 40% and brought the time to construct a floor down from two to four weeks to just four days.

The country’s emerging Canberra Drive development – consisting of eight mid-rise blocks – is reportedly the world’s largest modular construction project.

Above: Assembly of the Crowne Plaza Hotel extension at Changi Airport in Singapore. 

In Australia, Hickory Group used prefabricated elements to construct Melbourne’s 60 storey Collins House, improving quality, reducing programme duration and overcoming the logistical challenges presented by the 12.5-metre wide site.

Hickory adopted similar approaches on the city’s La Trobe Tower.

In the United States, Factory OS recognise the benefits of embracing a manufacturing mindset and market their volumetric solution as the answer to housing demand and the lack of skilled workers entering the workforce.

In a similar vein, the slickly-presented Katerra are taking long established panelised and component-based construction approaches but delivering them through a business that they claim is highly technology orientated, deliberately employing expertise from beyond the construction sector to drive innovation.

UK UPTAKE

Offsite approaches have also been employed across the UK market for several decades. Indeed, the concept first came to prominence after the Second World War, when the country rebuilt large portions of its building stock.

Particularly notable projects in recent times include London’s 23 storey Creekside Wharf which is formed from volumetric modular units and the vast Alder Hey hospital which extensively embraced offsite fabrication techniques.

On the horizon, manufacturing approaches are being explored on some of the UK’s most significant projects, including the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point and Heathrow Airport’s third runway.

On the surface, the UK is seemingly well-served by firms with offsite capabilities.

At the volumetric end of the spectrum, established businesses such as McAvoy, Elliott, CaledonianElements Europe and others support the delivery of numerous projects across the country.

Above: Pre-assembled volumetric units by Elements Europe being craned into place on a UK construction site (image courtesy of Elements Europe).

Other more specialised volumetric providers have found niches in areas where factory-controlled production is almost essential. Connect 2 Cleanrooms, for example, create modular clean rooms that meet infection control standards and service a number of sectors.

Meanwhile in the non-volumetric arena, businesses like Innovare Systems produce panelised building elements that can serve a wide variety of building typologies, across a spectrum of different sites.

Above and Below: Hobhouse Court in London, UK. Panelised systems offer a high degree of adaptability, without compromising architecture. (images courtesy of Brisac Gonzalez [above] and Innovare Systems [below]).

At general contractor level, notable forward thinkers include Kier Group who have actively embraced offsite concepts on a number of projects and Laing O’Rourke, who claim that their Explore Industrial Park is the most automated concrete products facility in Europe.

While many of these businesses have served the UK industry for several decades, it is only recently that excitement around the potential to mass manufacture buildings – and in particular homes – has increased, largely as the country’s population has steadily grown, as the housing crisis has begun to bite, as the build-to-rent market has risen and as the construction sector begins to feel the effects of a severe skills shortage.

Successfully answering these challenges with a mass-production solution is a seemingly alluring prize that has driven the creation of several new ventures and investment decisions.

Housing association Swan have opened a modular factory in Basildon, while Berkeley Homes have begun developing modular solutions at their facility in Kent and Ilke Homes have invested in a factory in Harrogate.

Underlining the appeal, financial services giant Legal and General are now entering the market with their modular homes offering– attempting to address the country’s housing crisis by constructing a vast factory near Leeds. Though currently only part-utilised, the facility is expected to steadily scale-up production in the coming years.

Above: The ability to mass produce buildings, and in particular homes, is a seemingly an alluring prize that has driven numerous new ventures and investments.

However, despite this surge in interest, last year just 1% of new homes in the UK were manufactured offsite.

If the benefits are so compelling and the industry is seemingly almost over-served by suppliers, why are we not seeing a widespread shift to an offsite manufacturing mindset in UK construction, and in particular in the housebuilding sector?

For decades a number of factors have held us back.

THE BARRIERS

Firstly, at a cultural level, the construction industry is notoriously resistant to change and the methods used to construct many of today’s buildings and infrastructure have remained fundamentally unchanged for centuries.

If that cultural barrier were not significant enough, we live in a society where standardisation is celebrated and even desired in areas, but where the vast majority of consumers seek a bespoke building or home. This is in notable contrast to some other cultures around the world, where offsite manufacturing techniques and modular homes have thrived.

In the UK, many consumers perceive the term “offsite” to mean low quality, boxy looking modular buildings or homes that lack character or architectural appeal, and the country’s Grenfell Tower disaster has hardened views around the importance of building quality.

These preconceptions are reinforced by mortgage lenders and insurance firms who have been wary of backing such schemes in the past, dissuading consumers and developers alike.

Several examples of attractive, modular architecture have emerged over the years only to fall from favour again as trends progress.

Within the industry, some project teams have experienced low quality offsite solutions or discovered that cost savings are merely offset elsewhere.

Others lament the “transporting of air” that some volumetric systems require or that any value achieved is not always passed on in a sector where margins are infamously low.

The use of off-the-shelf, customisable volumetric solutions has also proven difficult to apply at scale across the wide variety of physical sites that the construction industry contends with.

Above: The construction sector works across a broad variety of physical sites.

Conversely, panelised solutions have performed better, able to adapt to different footprints and site constraints, blending the benefits of standardisation, with a sufficient degree of adaptability.

The extent to which true “manufacturing” approaches have been adopted across the UK sector is also highly varied. While many use the terminology, the degree of automation, efficiency and scale within UK offsite production facilities is on a broad, sliding scale.

In addition to these barriers, driving ultimate value from offsite manufacturing relies on planning and designing for such an approach from the outset; a challenging task in an industry where contracts and procurement routes are geared towards the engagement of suppliers in the later stages of development.

PANELISED POTENTIAL

I saw the potential of panelised systems up close when I visited Innovare Systems’ factory in Coventry, UK, and spoke to their MD, Pete Blunt.

While volumetric modular solutions are fantastic for certain purposes and clearly deliver value in their core markets, panelised systems appear to offer the benefits of standardisation and manufacturing, while offering the adaptability and versatility needed to meet our desire for unique buildings and the scope of sites that the industry works upon.

Above and Below: The B1M's Fred Mills visiting Pete Blunt at Innovare Systems in Coventry, UK.

I was struck by the capabilities of Innovare and their ability to serve the industry well with their adaptable solution, today. The sluggish uptake that Blunt describes in the film seemingly stems from the barriers outlined above.

COMPONENT-BASED APPROACHES

When considering the extent of automated manufacturing employed in the aerospace and automotive industries, it is easy to see how the ultimate value promised by offsite manufacturing could lie in component-based systems; solutions that break buildings and structures down to their simplest ingredients and build from a pre-determined kit-of-parts, sustainably sourced from localised supply chains.

Like panelised systems, this could give us the benefits of standardisation, while providing a sufficient degree of adaptability to meet site and planning constraints.

UK-based integrated design and operations consultancy Bryden Wood, together with their partners, appear to lead the world in this area.

Above: The B1M's Fred Mills visiting Bryden Wood's Jaimie Johnston at the Construction Platforms Research Centre.

Having analysed the array of buildings constructed by the UK Government over recent years – from prisons and military accommodation to hospitals and schools – their teams have identified the core components found in almost every structure and used them to develop a series of “platforms” to build from.

From there, they have explored how best to manufacture those components using high levels of automation to drive quality and productivity.

Concurrently, their teams have also identified building components that could be produced by low-skilled workers, helping to overcome the severe lack of skilled operatives entering the workforce.

Above: Fred Mills and Jaimie Johnston at the Construction Platforms Research Centre.

Trialling this with the UK’s Ministry of Justice at a Prison Industries prototyping facility proved highly successful, with prisoners able to construct a complete two storey block after limited training.

The trial significantly improved morale among inmates and saw several prisoners contribute ideas as they engaged with the project.

Visiting the Construction Platforms Research Centre – a sandbox for trialling concepts before they are potentially scaled and applied to projects - allowed me to see and understand these concepts first hand.

Above: "Low-skilled workers" Fred Mills and Jaimie Johnston attempt to assemble a super-block at the Construction Platforms Research Centre. 

Attempting to construct a “super-block” with Bryden Wood’s Jaimie Johnston showed me just how easy certain building elements could be to put together. With minimal training and after a couple of practice runs over the course of around half an hour, I was soon assembling one of the blocks in 5 minutes flat.

STANDARDISED ADAPTABILTY

While offsite approaches have been present but not widely adopted across the UK industry to date, the pressures of our expanding population, housing crisis and severe industry skills shortage, combined with significant advancements in technology, appear to be rapidly advancing the market.

The broad spectrum of solutions available – from volumetric systems to SIPS, component manufacture and even 3D printing – all seemingly have their place.

While customisable volumetric solutions are perfect for a range of requirements, the key to widespread uptake in every area of construction could lie in panelised systems and component-based platforms; solutions that offer higher degrees of adaptability, while retaining the benefits of standardisation and manufacturing.

Above: A number of factors are rapidly advancing the offsite manufacturing market. 

Making our industry more accessible, broadening the talent pool and enabling us to build in a faster, higher quality and more productive way, while also meeting our deep-rooted cultural desire for unique buildings and the challenges that each site presents, is a tall order.

But from these tough parameters, it appears that much of the innovation and advancements now being made could be about to fundamentally disrupt the way that we chose, design, construct and even think about the built world that surrounds us.

Documentary hosted by Fred Mills. Background research by Emma Crates. Our thanks to Cast Consultancy, Innovare Systems, Bryden Wood, Easi-Space and the Construction Platforms Research Centre (CPRC) for their involvement.

Additional footage and images courtesy of Agnese Sanvito, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, Apple, Bates Smart + Golden Age Group, Berkley Homes, Brisac Gonzalez, Bryden Wood, Changi Airport Crowne Plaza, City Developments, Connect 2 Cleanrooms, Dan Cortese, EDF Energy, Elements Europe, Essential Living, Factory OS, Fred Mills, Heathrow Airport Limited, Hickory Group, Ilke Homes, Innovare Systems, Jordy Meow, Katerra, Laing O’Rourke, Legal & General, The McAvoy Group, Osborne, Stora Enso and Swan Housing Association.

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