Off-site manufacture for construction

Clay Technology magazine
16 Aug 2018

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has called on the government to standardise and promote off-site manufacture for construction. Kathryn Allen reports.

A fragmented sector, lacking in trust. This was the impression of the construction industry given to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee while hearing evidence for its report, Off-site manufacture for construction: Building for change

The report was driven by the committee’s belief that the sector ‘as it is currently constituted cannot efficiently meet the need for housing, and may struggle to meet the need for infrastructure’. 

Determining that off-site manufacture for construction could help the industry meet these needs, with benefits including higher quality buildings, increased productivity, improved health and safety, and reduced disruption, the committee aimed to investigate why the take up of off-site manufacture has been limited. 

Lord Fox, member of the committee, told Clay Technology, ‘It became quite clear as we went through the evidence stage that it isn’t a lack of technology that exists, it’s much more around organisation, business, and contracting – those kinds of things determine whether off-site manufacturing happens or not. It became clear that what we would be commenting on was how government went about creating the conditions for more off-site manufacturing to happen, and that’s what we’ve tried to do in the report.’

Considering obstacles to off-site manufacture including a lack of standardisation and collaboration, attitudes to risk, and the skills gaps, recommendations made in the report include government promoting the adoption of recognised standards for off-site manufactured components by working with industry bodies such as the British Standards Institute and exploring options for the accreditation of housing built using off-site manufacture. The Construction Leadership Council is called upon to address the lack of collaboration and attitude to risk, described as cultural and to be dealt with by the sector. 

Skills gap

The committee also recommends that government works with industry to develop new qualifications to equip the workforce with the digital skills required for off-site manufacture. The report notes that concerns were raised from those giving evidence, such as the Building Alliance, that young people may be put off taking up traditional construction skills, such as bricklaying, if digital qualifications are promoted. 

On this, Lord Fox said, ‘I don’t think off-site manufacture will preclude the need of traditional skills, and we’re desperately short of people with these skills [...] I don’t think this report envisages an end to the traditional brickie or plasterer.’ He added, ‘There will still be buildings built that aren’t off-site manufactured, that are traditional, and there’s a whole bunch of remediation work as well that goes on. We never discussed it on the committee, bringing an end to the brickie was never on the agenda, and I still think that’s a valuable skill that will be needed long after I’m pushing up daisies.’ 

Investment in off-site manufacture could also attract a more diverse workforce. ‘One of the benefits with off-site manufacture is that is creates a different sort of employment environment – there is the opportunity to open up employment in construction to a wider group of people who might not otherwise be attracted to the idea of squidging around on a building site. If you’ve got a factory environment with IT skills and automation, there’s the benefit of bringing in a whole different carter of people’, said Lord Fox. 

Call for clarity

The report also calls for clarification on the government’s ‘presumption in favour of off-site construction’ noted in the Construction Sector deal, published 5 July 2018. Lord Fox repeated this call saying, ‘[the government] says it’s got this presumption in favour of off-site manufacture – we don’t know what that means, and we call on the government to define it in terms of targets, key performance indicators.’ The committee also suggest that if off-site manufacture is not used on a project, the government should justify why this is the case. 

On the reports’ release, concerns have been raised regarding safety and insurance of buildings constructed using off-site manufacture. Allison Whittington, Head of Housing at insurer Zurich Municipal, London, said in a statement, ‘While we welcome the report, as well as support the house building sector’s ambition to embrace new and innovative methods of construction, we still harbour significant concerns around the adoption of modern methods of construction (MMC) where inappropriately used or not fully understood.

 ‘The ever increasing and immediate demand for more new UK homes has understandably paved the way for the adoption of MMC. But issues relating to the durability of a finished development, including increased risk of larger scale damage from flood, water damage, and fire events has also emerged,’ continued Whittington.  

Concerns were also expected from the architects who gave evidence. However, according to Lord Fox, ‘They didn’t see [off-site manufacture] as a huge threat, and I suppose that was the area from which we’d expected more resistance. The evidence suggested they felt that their design wings were not going to be too clipped by this process.’ 

Fox added, ‘This isn’t an end to individuality. It’s actually a regularisation of how we go about delivering that individuality.’