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Lighthouse | Offsite construction can reshape building for the better

Urban Splash's modular 'hoUSe' scheme in New Islington, Manchester

The important role that offsite construction will play in the future of the sector is becoming clearer, but it is important we take a strategic approach to ensure the benefits it promises come to fruition.

A recent consultation by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority highlights the fact that it sees offsite construction as the future direction of travel for the sector. As well as calling for evidence, it restated the government’s commitment for five departments to adopt a “presumption in favour” of offsite construction in future procurement.

There is an opportunity now to fundamentally reshape the construction sector for the better. With an emphasis on offsite construction alongside an increased use of digital technologies and changing business models to better reflect where value is derived, the sector can better equip itself to meet future infrastructure needs.

Offsite construction will require several fundamental changes to delivery models and practices, from involving manufacturers earlier and as key partners to driving down the cost of a build through component costs and increased productivity.

The benefits, which government has recognised, include improving certainty of project delivery, reducing deliveries and waste, supporting regional growth and enabling better investment decisions based on whole-life cost.

Not a magic bullet

However, offsite is not an instant magic bullet. At a recent roundtable, hosted by the ICE, the clear message was that full adoption of this approach will need a 10 year vision.

To achieve traction, there needs to be good groundwork. The government must consider sector and departmental restrictions, regulations and standards to rationalise these for scale.

A Project 13-style integrator role will help to manage this across Whitehall departments and shift the industry away from transactional business models towards an enterprise model.

An enterprise model is a key requirement. No one could call the current model sustainable and if the sector was starting from scratch it would not recreate it.

An enterprise would best support offsite methods by providing sufficient scope for efficiency, productivity and innovation so that suppliers can invest in more productive methods of construction which will pay off across a larger programme.

It would also enable long-term relationships and closer collaboration, allowing suppliers and advisors to better know their customer (the asset owner) and adapt and develop appropriate methods and products for their needs. 

Integration too would be beneficial – bringing together advisors and different levels of suppliers to work with the owner. This combined expertise would allow development and deployment of modern methods, rather than creating competition across contracts.

Engaging the supply chain earlier and more strategically will also allow better joint scoping of the potential application of those methods, increasing the chance of successful and productive deployment.

While the benefits sound exciting, it is important to focus and start slowly. The government should work with the construction sector to set out clear principles and a philosophy of approach, recognising and using departmental trailblazer programmes.

It should also recognise that there is significant good work already being done where lessons can be shared and learnt to help enable a successful and sustainable shift to offsite construction.

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