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Offsite manufacture key to driving change

Laing O'Rourke's Steetley facility

The model used for building infrastructure in the UK is ”completely broken” according to a leading engineer.

Speaking at Ecobuild on the future of construction and offsite manufacturing, Laing O’Rourke group technical director Paul Westbury said that the current construction model in the UK was ”completely broken” and that offsite manufacture was key to driving change.

“If you visit a modern factory today, the quality of the environment is so much better than being on site,” said Westbury. “It allows you to have significantly improved quality controls, improved focus and there are improved technical skills wrapped around the area you’re working on. But perhaps in a rudimentary way, you’re not building things in the freezing rain and the dark so it’s safer as well.

“If you go onto a site today in inclement weather, then it’s very hard to build a quality product.”

He said that by constructing 70% of a building offsite, contractors could reduce onsite labour by 60% and the construction programme could be cut by around 30%.

“That means you can drive higher quality solutions with fewer people in a much better environment with manufacturing quality and you can deliver it faster,” he said.

“The future of construction is not about offsite manufacture, construction today is about offsite manufacture.”

Westbury said that this could also help with the skills shortage by reducing the workforce required.

Green Construction Board (GCB) knowledge and skills group member Lynne Sullivan agreed, and said offsite construction could make the industry more attractive to the next generation.

“There are some things about the offsite sector which will make it more attractive to people and bring better skills into industry,” she said. “Not only the nicer and more healthy working environment, but the range of skills which you need for offsite, the logistics and the quality control and the site assembly.”

But Sullivan said that one of the barriers to offsite manufacturing was the upfront cost of setting up the factories which would make the components.

“People have to invest in factories and R&D and do the sort of work that Laing O’Rourke have been doing,” she said. “That doesn’t happen overnight, we haven’t got the scale yet. The actors aren’t the right people who are making the investment at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that that can’t change.”

She said at the moment most developers are not constructors so there has to be a shift in the way projects are procured to allow a step change to happen.

“New entrants to the market like Legal & General and people like Crest are saying they want to run their own factories, but there need to be big changes in procurement to replicate the type of system which is going to produce the high quality buildings that we need,” she said.

“Better build quality is key. There has been a lot in the press highlighting defects in new buildings – we do not build to the right quality. The zero carbon hub work performance gap showed that there is a lack of rigour in onsite inspection and there is a lack of verification of completed work.

“When you’re going into mass production, you need to iron out every problem so we need to wise up.”


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