Overcoming the Barriers

Article first published Structural Timber Magazine (www.offsitehub.co.uk/offsitemagazine)

Dr Robert Hairstans, Head of Centre for Offsite Construction + Innovative Structures (COCIS) highlights some areas where there remains challenges for greater adoption of off site manufacture.

If properly executed the advantages or ‘value proposition’ of offsite construction are well known within the readership of this magazine. Offsite can efficiently deliver a high quality, mass-customisable product that is technically advanced. Offsite can sit within a circular economy and offer social, environmental and economic benefits. And yet of a £90 billion UK construction market it currently has a 1.6% market share. This is a construction market that has stagnated in terms of productivity and prior to the recession was sheltered by the health of the economy and now is being faced with a skills crisis.

Consistently there have been calls from government and other respected sources for improved levels of productivity and cultural change. The most recent of which is the Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model (2016) report – Modernise or Die. Farmer again highlights the low productivity and predictability of the sector, its structural and leadership fragmentation, its financial fragility all underpinned by a dysfunctional training and recruitment process wrapped in a culture of distrust with a lack of collaboration.


Could the message be clearer and could this be the tipping point for offsite to scale?

Can offsite provide a new image for the sector in order to engage the public and attract the top talent?


 It was in the last quarter of 2009 when the UK economy moved out of recession following the global economic downturn, and at the time Construction Excellence highlighted the need for a new construction industry vision, based on the concept of the built environment. This new vision required a better understanding of how value is created over the whole lifecycle of an asset and it highlighted the need for the supply side to demonstrate how it can create additional economic social and environmental value through innovation, collaboration and integrated working. To do so the sector needed leaders who could engage the public and key stakeholders about the ‘new value’ the built environment brings, who could engage employees to deliver the necessary changes and who could attract more talented people from a wider pool to work in the industry.

Offsite is the supply side of construction and is well established but is unable to scale showing only signs of steady growth. Interestingly this trend is replicated internationally in North America, Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia with the most prominent emerging markets being China and India.
In Building Offsite: an introduction publication, I have highlighted the recognised barriers to growth:

Resistance to change

Offsite is very much a change in construction culture and consequently has a different skill set requirement with an emphasis on holistic knowledge and an improved understanding of project management, scheduling and planning requirements. Given that this is the case a new approach to training and skills is needed at all levels providing improved pathways for career progression and enhanced levels of up to date information.


Capital investment

The higher levels of capital and technical approval costs for offsite construction requires investment decisions to be more informed demonstrating the added value of offsite construction (quality assured, just in time strategies, environmental impact and building fabric performance). Offsite construction therefore requires strong business leadership combined with operational management and a technical knowledge in order to address the misconceptions of the public, clients, lenders and insurers.

Guidance & information

The concept of offsite is closely associated with manufacturing and draws on principles which seek to achieve improvements in quality and efficiency combined with reductions in waste. The guidance required and ow of information between design, production and assembly is therefore different from traditional construction and requires to be more integrated with a need for more holistic knowledge at all levels.

New business models

Offsite construction has a different cash-flow model with a shift towards more upfront costs which in-turn may create differing nance arrangements. This is however offset by the speed of construction, particularly where revenues are more guaranteed i.e. social housing. Overall the cash, shorter build time, associated with offsite construction and this should be seen as a benefit as it can reduce overall development financing. However the current barrier is the need for greater understanding of the differing financial funding and cash ow cycles, when using offsite solutions.

Skills

However, given we are now a further seven years on from the end of recession and given the inherent problems of the sector why has offsite not been able to demonstrate properly its value proposition in order to overcome some of these barriers?
For me we have to underpin the value proposition claims being made with evidence based metrics and think more laterally with respect to the ‘skills’ needed to do so. The education of the next generation of built environment professionals needs to be thought of in the widest sense in order to change culture and improve productivity through the application of lean theory by empowered members of a team.

This sort of upskilling will improve productivity but it does require the implementation of localised collaborative frameworks capable of sharing knowledge internationally within a global economy which is becoming increasingly more digitised. Education of this new approach to delivering the built environment therefore needs a platform approach with a compelling vision to attract the top talent to the built environment interfacing them directly with industry in order to drive change.

Edinburgh Napier University working with a series of international academic partners active in offsite research are doing this via the Built Environment Exchange (beX). The objective of beX is to provide an accelerator education platform partnering University and construction industry partners internationally. This connectivity facilitates student mobility for enhanced experiential learning activities geared towards undergraduate, early career postgraduate and doctorate students.
The opportunity will be open to students from all areas of study in order to widen the pool of available talent to not only tackle the construction sector skills de cit and diversification challenges, but also to harness the new skills required for changes in construction delivery (i.e. offsite manufacture, lean and integrated delivery, reliance and low carbon construction, BIM and other technology integration). This will attract some of our most talented graduates to the sector and lead to future sustainable communities of tomorrow whilst decarbonising the economy. Importantly this supports a cultural shift in the construction sector skills base in addition to supporting international knowledge exchange. 

To my mind this is the sort of approach that is long overdue. If the next generation understand what is necessary to deliver the built environment efficiently then the barriers to doing so will be removed. This is a change in mindset from what ‘could be done’ to what ‘should be done’. As a sector we need to invest in these individuals in order that they can champion change. 

“Building Off-Site,” authored by Robert Hairstans, PhD, was published in the April 2016 issue of the Journal of the National Institute of Building Sciences (JNIBS), a publication of the Washington, D.C.-based National Institute of Building Sciences. The article has been reproduced here with permission from the publisher. Learn more about JNIBS at http://www.nibs.org/?page=journals. Subscription information is available at https://www.nibs.org/?journaldigital and https://www.nibs.org/?journalprint.