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How do we unleash offsite's potential?

Offsite has the capacity to play a bigger role in the construction industry, but how do we unlock that capacity?

There is no shortage of examples where the proven benefits of offsite manufacturing have been harnessed to develop both bespoke and generic solutions to a range of construction demands.

There are many projects right now that are being enhanced by the extra dimensions this different approach can offer.

Record number now turning to offsite

From our own experience, these include overall build cost savings of up to 35 per cent; improved safety by reducing the requirement for site labour by a typical 40 per cent; significant programme time savings; better quality control and ‘through life’ building performance; less waste; and a lower carbon footprint.

“All too often, we are called upon in the later stages of planning, tasked with sub-optimally delivering one element of a specification where we have had little opportunity for influencing the outcome of the overall construction”

And it is these advantages that have prompted clients and construction partners alike to break new ground and turn to this approach in record numbers over the past year.

Despite this being a healthy trend that is poised to gather momentum year on year, offsite manufacturing is itself facing a real-life challenge of its own: exploring ways of untying a Gordian Knot to accelerate this pace of growth.

How can we accelerate its growth?

It is difficult to quantify the exact contribution that offsite makes to the £90bn the construction sector is worth to the UK economy. Some researchers believe it could be as high as £4bn, while others claim it is as low as £1.75bn.

Wherever we sit on that range, those working in the increasingly specialised, technologically advanced and skilled world of offsite are united in the view that it has the capability and capacity to play a far bigger role. 

The headroom to grow its market presence is clearly there, cementing its position as its own burgeoning community within the sector.

To do so, however, requires the offsite approach to be invited to play an earlier role in a project – one where we are at the very heart, and start, of the decision-making and design process for a project, devising innovation and developing new approaches.

Involved from the start

All too often, we are called upon in the later stages of planning, tasked with sub-optimally delivering one element of a specification where we have had little opportunity for involving our expertise and influencing the outcome of the overall construction.

“We still need more boldness from all stakeholders involved in a project and not to see offsite as “risky” but instead pivotal to unlocking a way to deliver better value to a client in terms of certainty and assured quality”

It’s something we experience across both the private and public sectors, where the word ‘offsite’ is conspicuous by its absence in all too many tender specifications and procurement processes – a trend that needs reversing.

Yet this is a task made all the more challenging by a sector that is traditionally conservative and risk-averse, and where a sea change in culture is required – embracing new ways of thinking and working, rather than maintaining the status quo of ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’.

Offsite needs demystifying

Demystifying what offsite is all about – lifting tension and nervousness as a result – will be pivotal to exploiting the potential that lies before us. And gradually this is paving the way for change.

We still need more boldness from all stakeholders involved in a project and not to see offsite as ‘risky’ but instead pivotal to unlocking a way to deliver better value to a client in terms of cost certainty, programme certainty and assured quality.

Stakeholders who have already taken what Richard Branson would call an ‘adventurous decision’ have included clients for some of the most complex, challenging and largest projects we have ever been involved in, such as Heathrow Airport, Birmingham New Street Station and the world’s largest dairy for Arla Foods.

And next time we all take a flight, board a train or put milk on the breakfast table, we need to remember the greater role that offsite manufacturing can play in bringing to life all our day-to-day activities in a quicker, safer, more sustainable and cost-effective way.

Graham Cleland is general manager of NG Bailey’s offsite manufacture division

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