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The next step for off-site technology

Off-site construction has proved its worth in the affordable housing sector, now it is time to expand its use. By Darren Richards

Ten years ago the Egan Report, Rethinking Construction, challenged the industry to embrace off-site technology.

The uptake of off-site technology continues at a pace with perhaps more enthusiasm and drive than we have ever seen in the past 10 years.

The continued progress is largely a result of the major government departments promoting significant change in the procurement and delivery of public sector buildings.

Now the use of off-site technology is commonplace, but to many the sector is still viewed as a semi-cottage industry largely populated by SMEs spread throughout the UK.

Many of these manufacturers are only able to offer one product solution. There are few, if any, ‘super-manufacturers’ who can provide the full range of off-site solutions.

Moving to a larger scale

The industry needs to develop multi-system manufacturers who have the ability to design, supply and install major building projects with confidence and certainty.

It needs to show that off-site can claim the centre ground for mainstream construction, and not just the fringes.

The commercial sector has taken up off-site techniques with gusto, in some cases adopting new construction methods not simply because the designs require it but because it is the most efficient way to build.

The private housing market is starting to examine options and trial new methods but it still represents a very small amount of activity.

Without the driving force that prevails in the social housing sector, demand within, say, the Thames Gateway will prove to be a catalyst for many house builders - particularly given the increased pressure on resources caused by the Olympics.

Major project opportunities exist and the construction sector now has a genuine understanding of the benefits that innovation can bring. The market will continue to increase sufficiently in size to allow manufacturers to continue to invest and create manufacturing efficiencies. Most off-site manufacturers have developed lean manufacturing principles.

Aims for the future

So what of the next 10 years in the off-site industry? Utopia must be that we penetrate the mainstream, that off-site technology becomes the norm, not the exception to the rule.

An industry that can deliver more interesting buildings with less defects, built faster, by companies working together to gain maximum supply-chain efficiencies at a lower construction cost.

To the off-site industry it is clear to see that there has been a shift in attitude.

Slow as the uptake may be, it is consistent. Those who believe passionately in off-site manufacturing must continue to push the boundaries and celebrate what our industry has achieved in the past 10 years, whilst keeping their eyes firmly on the opportunities that the next 10 years present.

Darren Richards is managing director of off-site consultant Mtech Group, an exhibitor at the Futurebuild show.