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Behold the project of the future – but it needs your help

Jaimie Johnston

Let’s step a year or two into the future.

A building is under construction. Let’s say it’s a hospital, but it could just as easily be a school or an office block.

All buildings this size can use the same component parts, so demand is consistently high, and a number of manufacturers have invested in their production. Economies of scale have reduced prices substantially and made the supply chain more robust.

Because the same system is used across different projects, workers on site are already familiar with the components. They are precision-manufactured offsite, so don’t need to be cut to size or banged into place. That means much less waste and noise than a traditional site. These are not ‘plumbers’ or ‘bricklayers’; they are trained in manufacture and assembly techniques.

Some of the workers operate in sub-assembly workstations putting together complex elements, such as ceiling cassette, on site in factory-like conditions, before robotic arms place them into position.

Even hospital-specific components, such as air filtration units, are handled in the same way. Each component has an electronic tag to monitor its progress through manufacture, shipping and assembly. The project’s digital platform constantly updates its models and inventory to produce real-time costings and logistical data.

More factory than site

The structure of the building is assembled in weeks, not months. It will go on to be clad, rendered or tiled just as different cars are built on the same assembly line.

Internally, the fit-out (undertaken by the same team that assembled the superstructure) will finish off ensuring the hospital is built to higher standards of quality than traditional methods could achieve.

“If the advantages are widely recognised, why aren’t we already building everything like this?”

This project actually has far more in common with a factory than a traditional site. Construction began with a highly co-ordinated digital version of the asset underpins the offsite production and onsite assembly.

Procurement takes place at component level from a diverse supply chain via a digital marketplace. It is these features of the process that matter, not whether they happen indoors or outdoors (traditional construction in a big shed may be offsite, but it is still traditional).

Political recognition

Vast improvements in efficiency are now available in construction, and this is recognised within government.

A recently published House of Lords report cited “a compelling case for the widespread use of offsite manufacture”, explaining that “offsite is an umbrella term encompassing many different systems”, referring to it as “smart construction”.

So if the advantages are widely recognised, why aren’t we already building everything like this?

The report identifies the industry’s fragmentation and a “lack of collaboration and improvement culture” as barriers to offsite adoption. “Many witnesses told us that the current culture and structure of the construction sector is not conducive to extensive use of offsite manufacture,” it adds.

More specifically, procurement is singled out as a major obstacle: “Procurement models used in the construction sector, including the structure of contracts, assignment of risk and cashflow, are designed for traditional construction.”

Others stress that “offsite manufacture needs to be considered from the start of the design process”.

All of this is true: DfMA cannot bolt on to existing processes. It’s part of a completely new way of doing things that encompasses not just the way structures are designed and built, but how they are financed as well.

As an industry, we need agreed common standards and structures that encompass that entire process, not just parts of it.

We have all the technology and knowledge we need to take a huge leap forward, but it’s a leap we have to take together.

Jaimie Johnston is director and head of global systems at Bryden Wood

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