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.
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.
Guidance & information
New business models
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.
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.