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Laing O'Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering and Technology

 

CEM08 Monday 1st July 2019

Output article from the History and future of offsite construction residential week reflective exercise, part of the Construction Engineering Masters programme.

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Offsite construction: progressing the dialogue in the Construction Engineering Masters programme

Dr Kristen MacAskill (supported by Tercia Jansen van Vuuren and Cara Parrett)

Advancing modern methods of construction is a core part of the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy as detailed in the Construction Sector Deal, which supports an ambition to shake up an industry that is in clear need of change. A strategic area of the deal is for “[o]ffsite manufacturing technologies to help to minimise the wastage, inefficiencies and delays that affect onsite construction, and enable production to happen in parallel with site preparation”. In November 2017, the Government announced a presumption in favour of offsite construction from 2019. Scepticism remains among some stakeholders in the industry, largely fuelled by the uncertainty and lack of clarity around how this presumption in favour will be delivered or enforced.

Offsite construction encompasses a broad range of products, technologies and processes, and for many in the industry (reflected in dialogue among participants of the Construction Engineering Masters programme), it remains unclear what constitutes an optimal commitment to offsite construction. Discussions on the subject inevitably lead to the question: “what counts as offsite”? Does, for example, a temporary building facility next to a construction site deliver sufficient value to the construction process?

In 2018, the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee helped to progress policy considerations by collecting evidence from industry and publishing a report that details specific recommendations for government to promote offsite construction. Subsequent activity via the Modern Methods of Construction inquiry and an ongoing CIRIA-University of Cambridge research collaboration is seeking to further clarify the value of offsite and create a more comprehensive evidence-base. Given the number and range of parties involved in the construction industry, it is no simple task to objectively define the role of offsite in construction going forward and understand what will truly benefit society.

In reflecting on these points, a group of 24 experienced professionals who are currently participating in the Construction Engineering Masters programme debated these issues in an afternoon workshop.

Participants in the discussion held divergent views about the way forward, reflective of the wider challenge of stimulating systemic change in the industry. Some of the evidence submissions to the House of Lords argued in favour of maintaining current practice; they argue that in an ideally functioning market, the market should provide the optimum solution, whether this is offsite or onsite or some hybrid solution. Placing faith in the market to deliver the best outcome was a controversial point in the discussion session. Views were split across whether clients should explicitly support and specify offsite construction, or whether, if there is real value to offer, the market will naturally adapt to incorporate these methods. Indeed, some in the group were not confident to express a view either way given the complexity associated with possible change and associated and lack of definitive evidence.

This uncertainty aside, the group agreed that efforts towards establishing a clearer definition of what is meant by “offsite” will help to ensure future debate and strategic decision making can be based on a common understanding of what is being addressed. The recently published Modern Methods of Construction Definitions Framework is a welcome development.

A key concern raised in discussion was related to quality of the product. Experience within the cohort has highlighted that the quality of products manufactured offsite has not always met the high quality expectations associated with production in controlled environments. Issues in fabrication of parts can be costly due to the scale of the impact. However, quality issues are not implicitly tied with offsite methods, and risks may be mitigated through detailed review of specifications and processes (such as how supply chain relationships are contracted and managed) so that they are fit for purpose in achieving the desired outcomes. Participants also highlighted the need to adapt how a site operates as construction processes will ultimately be affected by changes in design and production methods.

No discussion on offsite construction would be complete without the subject of cost being addressed. Participants deliberated about how, if lowest cost remains the overarching criteria for project delivery, coupled with lack of visibility or certainty of a pipeline of work to provide gains through scale, there is little opportunity to develop capacity to deliver offsite.

Also, the tendency towards creating bespoke, unique designs for every new project (whether in housing, water, healthcare or transport) is irrational and unsustainable. Offsite solutions are unlikely to gain significant traction in such a world.  At the very least, further consideration of offsite construction is providing a platform to challenge the construction industry to deliver better outcomes through more efficient provision of social and economic infrastructure that meets the needs of society

 

The purpose of this article has been to contribute to the wider dialogue in advancing modern methods of construction, with offsite construction being a key part of this dialogue. The points we have presented here reflect insights and reflections from the CEM08 cohort discussion, but does not necessarily reflect the positions of the individuals and the companies represented on the programme.

With thanks to Professor Cam Middleton (University of Cambridge), Dr Chris Goodier (University of Loughborough) and Dr Daniel Hall (ETH Zurich) for introductory talks that helped set grounding for this discussion.