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Encouraging offsite – making the possible practical

The Urban Land Institute’s residential conference threw up some interesting discussion topics.

As CN’s Robyn Wilson noted in Tuesday’s CN Briefing, there was the usual handwringing about the lack of housing and skilled tradespeople, but beyond that a number of topics caught the eye, not least the increased focus on offsite construction.

The concept of offsite, at a base level, seems like such an obvious ‘win’ for the industry that there should be widespread adoption of the practice to mitigate our skills shortfall and get construction working quickly to hit our housebuilding targets.

As with many things in life, it’s much easier in theory than in practice.

Business model

For me, the key point was perhaps Philip Barnes’ comment on companies operating on a return on capital investment model, and as such refusing to take on the level of risk associated with the move to offsite manufacture without a proven business case.

His point that many players in the market prefer to watch others lead the way and make mistakes before following a ‘tried and tested’ route certainly caught my attention.

“Surely there’s a way for companies to move into offsite without large investments that have no guarantee of commercial return?” 

He’s right to some extent, in that most businesses would rather follow a process that’s been proven to work and adapt it to suit their needs (and those of their customers).

But surely there’s a way for companies to move into offsite without large investments that have no guarantee of commercial return?

Instant results

Perhaps the key to unlocking the potential of offsite in a commercially savvy way is to invest in diversifying a company’s current offerings in ways that are immediately useful.

It’s a route that we’ve been committed to for some time at SIG, and which has seen us invest in ‘room in the roof’ constructions and white boxes that complement the work we do while satisfying customer demand.

“Perhaps through incremental steps to offset some of the risks, we can get Britain building faster and truly maximise the potential of offsite”

These moves aren’t designed to make our other offerings obsolete, or to open up our business to a swathe of new customers, but to offer the option of offsite to those that need to build faster in a controlled way.

The companies that attended the ULI conference are all established names in the sector and know their customer base well enough to know that change won’t happen overnight.

Perhaps through the application of the collective knowledge within the sector, and by incremental steps to offset some of the risks, we can get Britain building faster and truly maximise the potential of offsite in a commercially sound way.

Robert Barclay is managing director at SIG 

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