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Keeping offsite in sight

AGENDA Viewpoint

Is cost still the biggest barrier to off-site manufacturing? asks Gary Mail

NOBODY would argue against the advantages of off-site manufacturing techniques.They include standardisation of components, improvements to quality and health and safety and assisting in the speed of project delivery. Off-site manufacturing could also provide solutions to complying with the new standards coming about as a result of changes to the Building Regulations.

But while the costs for the adoption of off-site technology remain high, full realisation of the benefits remains unlikely.

The current changes to Part L of the Building Regulations are a good example of where prefabricated components could provide a solution.

Prefabricators have made great advances in meeting the requirements of the new rules and the benefits of standardisation mean that many prefabricated components are ahead of traditional methods in terms of thermal performance and air infiltration - two areas where regulations are becoming particularly tougher.

But the use of prefabricated components is expensive for all but large, modular structures - where the economies of scale make off-site manufacturing a viable proposition. Consequently, many construction firms will continue to stick to tried and tested methods.

And who can blame them? Despite our industry having made steps in demonstrating the importance of whole-life costing and creating strong partnerships between client and contractor in the past five years, in the majority of cases capital cost is still the most influential determinant of a contract.

The irony is of course that part L of the regulations seeks to make buildings more energy-efficient and thus more cost-efficient in operation. So an investment in off-site techniques at project inception could be paid back from the money saved in the occupation and running costs of a building throughout its life.

This leaves us in a Catch 22 situation.

When whole-life costs are considered, off-site manufacturing has the potential to bring cost efficiencies. But, with initial costs high, especially for one-off projects or small volumes, clients and contractors are unwilling to invest in the technology, so initial costs remain high.

With the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister setting out a goal for 25 per cent of public buildings to implement OSM techniques by 2007 and Kate Barker putting off-site manufacturing forward as an important means of helping to meet the current homes shortage in her review of the housing industry this year, there is no doubt that it is here to stay.So how do we increase its use and choose the right technologies to meet changes to the building regulations?

At the risk of banging the reform drum, could not collaboration - which is simply not being applied so as to reap its fullest benefits - be the answer? Clients must be better educated about the potential of offsite manufacturing and the related costs of using the technology and contractors and component manufacturers have a role to play in this.The latter must also work together to overcome some of the barriers to using offsite techniques such as planning and interfacing with conventional construction methods.

Without collaboration, construction's Catch 22 will continue to be all too familiar.

Gary Mail is Director of Strategic Projects for Thomas Vale Construction