The modern quandary

Clay Technology magazine
15 Feb 2018

Khai Trung Le looks at claims over the last two years that the construction sector needs to radically modernise or face decline.

In 2016, Mark Farmer, CEO of Cast Consultancy, published The Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model, better known by its more impactful subheading, Modernise or Die – Time to decide the industry’s future. The report, commissioned by the UK Government, outlined numerous recommendations to solve longstanding problems, including a ‘dysfunctional training model’, ‘lack of innovation and collaboration’ and ‘non-existent research and development’.

It did not pull any punches. Nor did several reports that followed throughout 2016–17, criticising the sector’s hesitancy to adapt. The Februrary 2017 UK Government’s white paper, Fixing our broken housing market, asserted that the industry was too reliant on a ‘small number of big players’. Analysis from consultancy Mace claimed that, over the last decade, output per worker has stalled, while it has increased by 30% and 50% in the service and manufacturing sectors, respectively. In a 2016 index from the McKinsey Global Institute, construction was among the least digitised industries, with agriculture and hunting ranking lower.

Perhaps most succinctly, Mark King, EMA BIM Solutions Manager at Leica Geosystems, wrote for GIM International, ‘It is not disloyal to say that the construction industry has some challenges to overcome. For centuries, the industry has been associated with delays and unforeseen costs, and the precedent for this has led to these failings being accepted as inevitabilities.’

Modular hopes

But, if the last two years have been the time to point fingers, Farmer is confident that the sector is finally ready to adapt, saying, ‘We see 2018 as the year when our organisation Construction Excellence shifts gear and turns words into action. Our goal is to positively disrupt industry delivery processes to transform performance throughout the sector.’

Construction Excellence announced its strategy to accelerate digital and offsite engagement at its annual conference in December 2017, taking a three-pronged approach – increased standardisation and pre-manufactured content, digitally enabled teams and long-term performance of assets.

Farmer continued, ‘The agenda for change is clear, the necessity and drivers are well understood and now it is time for practical change in boardrooms and on projects, which is crucial if we’re to bring industry practices into the digital age and create a brighter future.’ This is in keeping with recommendations made in his 2016 report, which encouraged using the residential development sector as a pilot programme to explore pre-manufactured, off-site construction and modular housing.

Don Ward, CEO of Construction Excellence, said, ‘We are all well versed in the demand for new homes, and it is clear that traditional brick and block methods simply cannot achieve the output required. Therefore, we want to identify and put into practice the modern methods of construction and standardisation that will significantly cut construction times, improve safety, quality, productivity and sustainability, are cost-effective and can match the volume required.

‘We need to learn from other sectors and develop new delivery methods and skills that will see the next generation work from a platform that can take our industry even further.’

However, Mace estimates that over 600,000 construction employees will need to be trained over the next two decades away from trades vulnerable to technological changes. If the sector is ripe for disruption, construction firms will need to ensure they do not leave anyone behind.