Anyone who can recall their school days will know why prefabricated buildings once had such a bad name – lessons in damp, cold structures which felt like little more than cardboard boxes sitting on paving slabs.
On 1 January the government’s ambition to favour offsite construction when procuring public sector projects came in to force. Far from being a step backwards, this new era of manufactured buildings is at the cutting-edge of construction.
Sam Stacey is leading the programme to transform construction at government-body Innovate UK, taking on the role of challenge director last September.
His approach will be broadly twofold. Firstly he will encourage government procurement bodies to favour new construction processes and techniques, including off-site manufacturing. Secondly he will seek to enable the industry to deliver this. The Department for Education’s school building programme will be the first area of public sector building to see the effects of this.
“We will provide the guidelines and the public sector will use them in the way it procures,” he says. “The building type the government is prioritising is schools because there’s big demand.
“We are making it really easy for the industry. We are saying ‘these are the guidelines you have to adhere to in your design. If you adhere to these guidelines you’re definitely going to be conforming to the requirements of the clients.”
There will be a high degree of conformity, and I think that’s desirable
Stacey has a £170M pot of government cash to “transform” construction, backed up by £250M of aligned investment from industry innovation body i3P.
This spending is intended to improve construction efficiency and productivity, while making the industry cleaner by promoting the design of energy-efficient buildings, built from manufactured components.
The backdrop to this from government’s side is laid out in its Industrial Strategy. The aim is that by 2025, buildings will be 33% cheaper to construct and maintain and that they will be delivered 50% faster, current emission levels halved.
A key target of this investment research and development of a kit of parts for buildings – components such as risers or windows.
Standardised, modular components
This kit will contain standardised, modular components which can be reproduced on an industrial scale, much like pieces of Lego.
So far, the biggest chunk of this investment – £72M – has gone towards setting up the Core Innovation Hub, a channel to fund the initiative which is being undertaken by three industry bodies. These bodies together call themselves the Transforming Construction Alliance. It comprises the Manufacturing Technology Centre which will develop the kit; the Centre for Digital Built Britain in Cambridge which ensures the kit is compatible with digital design requirements; and the building research body BRE which will test the performance of the kit’s components.
“The idea is that we define what’s going to be efficient, effective and high quality in terms of building a kit of parts, and then we advise the procuring bodies, particularly the government, to ask for those kinds of solutions,” he says. “And then we support the wider supply chain in providing those solutions on a mass scale.”
For all this to work, it requires that we reach a tipping point where it becomes the norm
Bryden Wood is the architectural partner which is advising on the development of the kit.
“It has done a lot of work in defining this approach,” says Stacey. “More than any other firm, it will be defining what the whole thing looks like.”
Bryden Wood has been developing the concept of customisable construction systems. In effect, it is working on a catalogue of components, each with specific details about how they can be used It will set out, for example, the maximum load a component can take. The idea is that these mass-manufactured components can then be used in a range of different structures.
“We want to make sure the interoperability of different components works seamlessly but also maximise creative freedom within those parameters,” says Stacey.
“There will be a high degree of conformity [in public buildings constructed with these components] and I think that’s desirable, certainly desirable from the point of view manufacturing techniques and efficiencies and arguably to have a consistent asset portfolio. The concept is about maximising life cycle value not just minimising capital cost. High conformity is conducive to efficiencies,” he says.
No concerns about cookie cutter approach
But as an architect and structural engineer, does Stacey not have concerns about a future of cookie-cutter public buildings as a result of this approach? He argues it will lead to better design, comparing the approach to that of car manufacturing where a designer would spend more time honing and refining the design for a mass-produced car than if each car were to be built on a one-off basis.
Alongside the Core Innovation Hub, the first batch of recipients for research and development cash have just been announced.
These projects are from industry, academia or a combination of both. Among the projects receiving £18M in funding are a project led by Keltbray Group which will develop new piling solutions to integrate energy and rainwater re-use when laying foundations. Another project led by the University of Bath involves Aecom and AKT II working together to optimise the design of concrete buildings, including prefabrication. Finally, £36M of the cash is going to the Active Building Centre in Swansea, which works to accelerate market adoption of solar-powered building design and cut barriers to its use.
It is at Swansea that a prototype of an energy-efficient classroom, complete with solar tubes, photovoltaic panels, a heat exchanger and an energy storage capability, has been developed. All this will help the drive to build the efficient classroom buildings of the near future.
While construction has been slow to modernise, Stacey believes that the fourth stage of industrial revolution – industry 4.0 – gives a ripe environment where the sector can draw on interoperability, digital modelling and artificial intelligence.
Drawing from his most recent role at contractor Skanska, where he was director of innovation, industrialisation and business improvement, he recognises it is difficult for firms to take the plunge when deciding whether to invest in new method.
“I think there’s enormous enthusiasm and appetite [for the industry to modernise], but I think there has been fear of taking the first steps. For all this to work it requires that we reach a tipping point where it becomes the norm.
“So, in a world where most people are operating by the old method, if you stick your neck out and develop standardised offsite techniques, you can be vulnerable to fluctuations in demand, so need to get a level of scale and consistency of demand,” he says.