The modern world of construction

I wrote the below blog in 2019 for Constructing Excellence. Having re-read I can see a lot is still topical and the modernisation of construction still has a fair way to go, although credit for the progress made by many. The firms disrupting are still doing that at different paces. Sekisui House has formed a joint venture with Urban Splash, bring their years of experience to the UK and working with a transformative developer. Enjoy the read.

—————————Published February 2019—————————–

Nearly three years ago a report was published calling for the Construction industry to “Modernise or Die!” – the industry has took note but the modernisation of the industry takes many forms – most notably the development of off-site construction. The terminology covers a broad range of outputs under one common banner, the completion of elements or components of a construction project at a different location to where they will be permanently installed. The construction of a warehouse, a house or even a component involves a number of stages and offsite can impact any part of the process – the planning phase, the build phase and even the design. One thing is for sure at the moment is that the transportation of the elements or components will be via road or rail for assembly at the ultimate site. 

Off-site construction, referred to as a modern method of construction, is receiving the focus as it is marked as a solution to the problems facing the UK construction industry:

  • Skills: We need the right skill in the right role. The more popular construction methods are labour intensive and some believe wasteful too. The workforce is aged and challenged by the net output to the workforce.
  • Productivity: The ability of delivering projects on-time, on-budget and profitability is a challenge. Many factors can make or  break a project. 
  • Lack of investment: “That’s how it has always been done” has led to many challenges in the industry linking directly to the above two. 

Off-site has the benefits of time-efficiencies (and by this the key point is the time saving is site preparation while structure is built ready for installation), higher quality and increased safety. These are three key areas that would be most welcome in any industry not just construction. 

The modernisation of construction can be approached by reviewing the processes and looking for areas of repetition, areas of high volume and where quality could be improved – these are the areas that off-site construction would benefit the most. This is why housing has become the most visible and notable area of off-site – a house is a house they all include very similar items and structure.

  • ILKE Homes is seeking to disrupt the housing market with their modular factory investment near Knaresborough through delivery of high quality, energy-efficient homes;
  • Citu, behind the Climate Innovation District in Leeds, are utilising timber frame;
  • Laing O’Rourke have invested heavily in digital engineering and in manufacturing facilities, anchored by Explore Industrial Park producing building system components in a controlled factory environment, prior to delivery to a construction site for installation; 
  • L&G have invested heavily in their 550,000 sq.ft factory in Yorkshire (with plans for more);
  • Urban Splash continue to invest in modern techniques underpinned by the hoUSe concept and even roof-top pods; and
  • The least or most likely to enter the sector, Legal and General is seeking to deliver precision-engineered homes on a unprecedented scale.

Modular construction is a specific part of off-site. Modular housing has for some time been cited as a solution to Britain’s housing crisis. Modular can certainly speed up the rate of housebuilding to at least make the government’s 300,000-homes-a-year target avoid a fairytale ending. But it is not just housing. 

The food & drink sector has been driving this forward for many years. Have you ever wondered how Costa, McDonalds and other establishments erect so quickly. Housing is now becoming the focus with a number of operators already supplying the market with many more scrambling to get it right. The benefits are many but simultaneously completing the foundations and the building (as opposed to sequentially) drives a large time reduction. Other areas of benefit for Modular are:

  • Modular is flexible and can be customised to fit the need of the business or individual. A key factor as to why modular housing will work and modular construction is thriving. 
  • Construction in a quality controlled environment means a quality output. Now that does mean rigorous testing of process and control but worth it for the output. 
  • The standardisation allows for efficient use of resource. 
  • Energy efficiency can be integrated into the design and recycling can be increased for the overall sector. 

To really make modular work as a viable solution means greater collaboration between suppliers and manufacturers – no longer can 50 baths be dropped off on site, they are required continually during the process. The government could put in place measures to further enhance the sector through incentives and finally through the usage of data analytics -existing utilisation of offsite could be monitored to enhance and impact efficiencies.

If we look to Japan, the Sekisui House modular factory looks more like a car plant than a construction site. The factory contains around 150 robots, each equipped with an arm that is able to manoeuvre on five different axes, in addition to being capable of spinning around on themselves. The first stage of the process involves robots cutting the panels from which modular frames are constructed. Lengths of steel are picked out by the robots from racks in the factory’s warehouse and brought gliding across to the head of a production line, where the cutting and shaping of the panels begins. The steel sheets are then bolted and welded together to create the cross-braced modules that will be used to make up the new homes. The future? The factory can build 4,000 homes a year.

The industry acknowledges a need for change but with one change comes money – a need for broader collaboration in the supply chain is key. Netherlands, Germany and the Nordics have embraced the building of manufactured homes – with 8 out 10 in Sweden using prefabricated timber. External factors will drive wider acceptance around modular such as mortgaging and insuring but signs already suggests mainstream providers are warming to the idea – or maybe jumping on the bandwagon!

Companies across the built environment sector are taking a major punt on Modern Methods of Construction..We are entering unprecedented changes for construction. The changes are much wider than simply off-site and are looking at performance along with diversity and supporting the mental health and wellbeing of employees. Those businesses that are adapting have the potential to thrive and those that don’t potentially won’t. 

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