Offsite construction: the dawn of a new era?
If you live and work in the UK, especially in the southern territories, you must have come across the severe housing shortage in one way or another and felt on your skin (and pocket) the lack of affordable and decent accommodation options.
Despite the government’s flamboyant declarations to promote the building of 300,000 new homes per year (!) too little has been done to actually address the issue.
The consequences of Brexit to the housing sector are equally devastating, as a further decline is expected due to lack of funding and, mostly, lack of experienced and skilled labour.
In London, almost 30% of construction workers are EU nationals while throughout the country the workforce is ageing worryingly. Over the next decade, a decrease of 20-25% is expected country-wide. These stats, combined with the conclusions of the 2016 Farmer Report that “more people leave the industry each year than join it” and that the UK’s construction industry faces “inexorable decline”, draw a dim prospect for the housing sector.
Modular, offsite construction, therefore, might be an option for the sought-after increase in the production of new homes. The introduction of high quality, passivhaus-level, modular housing solutions in conjunction with the development of offsite manufacturing and in situ assembly standards, as well as the digitalisation of the industry and the construction procedures seem to be the way forward.
The “new” uses of timber combined with digital technologies can play a decisive role. A reliable construction material, it opens a gateway to implementing modular solutions, with bespoke architecture and design flexibility. And, as it seems, the rebranding of offsite construction might help the industry to overcome its reservations about the once-called, prefabrication. The design limitations imposed on the architects and structural engineers i.e. the elimination of creativity from the design process, along with the poor quality outcome of the manufactured components were among the reasons that contributed to the bad reputation of prefab construction in the post-WW2 years. Bad quality of connections and finishes, along with a number of notorious failures rendered “prefab” an unwelcome guest to the table of contemporary construction. This, gradually, seems to become a trend of the past, assisted by a change in terminology and the commercial jargon that is being used.
As such, there seems to be some hope for the UK housing sector. The advent of composite timber technologies, CLT in particular (cross-laminated timber), and the upsurge of research regarding high-rise wooden buildings open the way to a number of changes to the construction industry.
There are many good reasons for a client to consider modular construction for their residential project and especially timber. Early engagement in the design and procurement process is, though, absolutely necessary.
Other benefits might include:
+ the design flexibility and creativity of the design team that is now offered
+ better control over the construction programme, eliminating uncertainties
+ a better defined, overall construction cost
+ the implementation of better-controlled, sustainable solutions
+ dealing more efficiently with the skilled labour shortage
+ achieving passivhaus-level standards that result in low-energy usage and better bills for the tenants (if no bills at all!)
Clients need to be cautious, however, as the current experience and comparative studies between the actual benefits of offsite construction and the traditional methods (r.c. or steel) are fairly limited. They must be diligent in their quest for architects and engineers, choosing those that have invested time and energy in familiarising themselves with such solutions, if not having implemented them already. Moreover, an informed cost manager with directly relative experience will come handy, for both a full cost comparison between alternative approaches and an assessment of the early-stage project finance and cash-flow analysis.
Another sign that the UK industry is reacting positively is the number of organisations that work towards developing a framework for the quality, efficiency and control of the off-and-on-site process.
The following sources demonstrate the current activity:
1. BRE Draft for Standard BPS 7014 & summary
The BRE (Building Research Establishment) is an established research and standardisation organisation, which deals with all aspects of the construction industry in the UK. They are currently developing a standard for offsite construction, namely BPS 7014, aiming to introduce a certification/quality control scheme as far as the manufacturers are concerned. Their plan is to develop the manufacturing standard and, subsequently, move towards developing an in situ assembly/construction standard for modular buildings. The latter, however, is still a distant target as BRE has substantial lobbying to do in order to convince the manufacturers to buy into the scheme. More info here.
2. BSI Review on existing Offsite Construction standards
The BSI (British Standards Institution) is the UK organisation for standardisation, similar to the DIN in Germany (Deutsches Institut für Normung). They have developed a paper that summarises the current status in the industry, regarding offsite construction, and is a good source to the existing standards. It also contains a useful review of the standards in tabulated format (Appendix 4).
3. RIBA Plan of Work DfMA
The Royal Institute of British Architects has embraced the offsite process and incorporated it into their Plan of Work procedure. The whole suite of RIBA documents can be found here; the DfMA is directly relevant to modular construction.
4. UK Government-Inquiries & Call for Evidence
i. House of Lords Science & Technology Select Committee report, Offsite Manufacture for Construction: Building for Change
ii. The Independent Review of Build-Out by the Rt Hon Sir Oliver Letwin MP,
iii. Also of interest is the document issued by the UK government for the New Approach to Building. The Infrastructure & Projects Authority issued a document to instigate discussion, seek consultation and record formally the feedback of the industry, to help the government address and set the future policies for innovative construction methods. This concerns the public sector but, as it happened in the past, the outcomes of such initiatives affect greatly the private sector, especially when the clients are Universities (which invest heavily in affordable housing) and large developers.
On a global level, positive signs of the emerging interest are the involvement of non-traditional construction players in the offsite process. Amazon has already invested in Plant Prefab, a Californian smart home startup, while in another instance they have struck a deal to preinstall Alexa in Lennar’s new homes.
At the same time, Autodesk is moving towards integrating the manufacturing process into construction by developing holistic solutions. Sarah Hodges, the Director of Construction Business Line in Autodesk, explains how Autodesk is utilising their manufacturing and design history in developing applications that aim to digitise the whole design, construction and post-construction ecosystem.
Last but not least, traditional clients, such as Mariott International, have announced plans to use modular construction on an increasing percentage of their hotel projects in the USA.
Coming back to the question of the title, the answer is a definite “yes”, it remains, however, to be seen how the revamped prefab sector will play to their strengths and pitch successfully to clients both from the private and public sector.
What one must not forget, however, is that the final judge will as always, be the end-user, i.e. the future dwellers (buyers or tenants). The users will give the verdict and will judge whether the offered “new” living environments are of acceptable quality, aesthetically pleasing, can stand the test of time and are, after all, maintenance-friendly.