The construction industry needs change. Solutions need to be embraced. Off-site manufacturing is a solution. Kathleen McAnea explains how attitudes which hinder this solution can be overcome.

The need for change

The House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee has recommended that off-site manufacturing (OSM) and other methods of “smart construction” could be the solution for the construction industry in meeting current housing demands.

OSM is the design, manufacture and sub-assembly of components of buildings carried out off-site using digital processes which are then transported and installed on site.

Callum Murray, Director of CCG (Scotland) Limited and Chair of Offsite Solutions Scotland hit the nail on the head when he told me:

“Westminster and the devolved governments are focused on the UK housing crisis and have acknowledged ‘offsite construction’ will play a key role in delivering the solutions.  We require to build more, faster and better and this is from a sector of historical low productivity in the midst of an emerging skills shortfall......Greater industrialisation & digitisation is inevitable in construction”.

OSM as a solution

The use of OSM could result in faster delivery of housing projects on a mass scale.  The standardisation of design and assembly processes has the ability to provide clients with improved quality, greater certainty over programmes and to minimise defects.

Peter Martin, Group Director of Development, Sanctuary Group (who successfully used OSM on a project in Glasgow) recently commented to me that “Labour shortages will require all builders of residential housing to embrace modern methods of construction so we can build the homes of the future.” He added “Cross-Laminated Timber [a form of OSM] can enable affordable flats to be built faster and with less site disruption than traditional construction methods.”

So what is holding back the use of OSM?

  • New business models and uptake
    Traditional business models and construction contracts need altered.  The introduction of updated NEC short supply contracts indicates the industry’s awareness of OSM.  Contractors would additionally have to make significant investment in manufacturing facilities along with their plant, staff etc.  Housebuilders would have to move away from the traditional ‘model’ of selling units to fund future phases.
  • Financial support
    Initial costs of using OSM are currently higher than traditional construction, but the benefits are to be had in the overall life-cycle of the development.  Although some housing associations, such as Sanctuary, have embraced OSM, the economic reality is that housing associations and local authorities need additional government funding to be made available if we are to see a greater uptake.
  • Acceptance by institutional funders
    For OSM to really evolve, it requires a large-scale rethink of construction/development finance but active government backing and formal accreditation could go some way to helping achieve this.

None of these issues are insurmountable.

Construction Scotland Innovation Centre in partnership with housebuilder and offsite manufacturer, Stewart Milne and Glasgow Caledonian University are undertaking research to compare productivity, downtime and waste between existing timber frame construction methods with more advanced crane-erected offsite timber frame system.  This is certainly a step in the right direction to achieve greater acceptance.

If 700 homes in the Athletes Village in Glasgow can be completed in 700 days, ahead of programme and within budget, who is to say that OSM could not help deliver the Westminster government’s 2017 budget promise of 300,000 homes in 365 days?  Think big.  Think solutions.  The construction industry needs them.