Offsite construction can become ‘new normal’ - comment
It is difficult to see how any industry sector will come through this unscathed and without re-examining how to do things differently. What will be important is that we emerge stronger and more resilient, and open to new innovative ways of working.
As the house-building industry begins to return to work, sites re-open, and companies re-examine their business strategies and models, it will become even more important to embrace new technologies and processes to ensure the sector can thrive long term. With most construction sites having been on pause, efficient delivery will be vital as the industry restarts and grows.
Particularly as the demand for more high-quality, cost-effective housing that can be quickly and efficiently built, has never been more acute and will only build going forward. The need to deliver more homes will be key in tackling the growing UK housing crisis, but it is vital that we are not simply back building, but building better homes.
Key to this will be to embrace modern methods, such as panelised offsite construction systems and lean construction, in a more integrated way, capitalising on digital technologies and advanced manufacturing.
The Advanced Industrialised Methods for the Construction of Homes (AIMCH) project started 18 months ago to trial ways to help to tackle the UK housing crisis by mainstreaming the use of these methods and lean technologies. At that time, the consortium set out to transform how the construction industry builds homes to meet current and future demands.
Today we are almost halfway through the three-year project, and more than ever, we are convinced that modern methods of construction offer unrivalled benefits, especially as we find our way through and out of this current crisis. The fast delivery of much-needed housing is critical. However, as the industry reopens, construction sites face operational restrictions.
With less labour resource onsite, the potential reduction in the supply of materials, coupled with the physical challenges of getting them onsite, and maintaining physical distancing, it will be some time before productivity is at the pre-lockdown level, never mind the level needed to tackle the UK housing crisis.
Offsite panelised construction offers a way forward, with fewer personnel on site than in traditional building methods. As part of the AIMCH project pre-Covid-19, partners have been undertaking productivity measurement studies, using time and motion and more innovative bluetooth-enabled tracking of operatives.
This technology has potential to monitor safe physical distancing. Bringing panelised offsite systems onto sites can also aid a quicker and more efficient delivery of homes. AIMCH has been assessing the benefits of standardisation. Homes can be externally finished using conventional materials, to provide robust, durable and beautiful homes, to suit any planning or aesthetic requirement.
Modern methods of construction help business recover through securing a more integrated and robust supply chain, by adopting a manufacturing-led approach, which can be scaled up quickly. With more automation in a factory setting, digital working, integrated supply chains, lean construction assembly and with staff collaborating with onsite teams, the greater efficiencies achieved will support the construction of the extra 120,000 homes needed a year to address the UK housing shortage.
That’s a challenge the housebuilding sector can’t meet using traditional construction methods alone. Offering integrated supply chain solutions, increased efficiencies, greater collaboration, increased productivity and commercially competitive mainstream offsite panelised construction methods, the AIMCH project is key in the post-Covid recovery, with offsite construction becoming the new normal in the sector.
Stewart Dalgarno is the AIMCH project director and director of product development at Stewart Milne Group
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