Offsite set to trigger a new engineering era

Published:  01 October, 2018

offsite, modern methods of construction, BESA, Tim Hopkinson, engineers, skills, manpower, off-site, precurement

Building engineering services will have to take a leaf out of the manufacturing industry’s book as it strives to deliver an increasingly challenging workload.

Over the next two to five years, we will see modern methods of construction starting to redefine the way we work. Building engineering contractors will have to become less and less about people working on sites and more about digital procurement and design linked to offsite manufacture.

Like product manufacturers, we will have to focus on producing more complete modules offsite. This will be partly driven by our skills and resource shortages, but also by a need to improve quality and compliance. It will also herald a new era that will bring with it many technical, social and financial benefits – and make our industry a far more appealing career prospect.

Adopting more of a production line approach will allow us to develop a less disruptive supply chain management and payment model. Successful offsite construction depends on collaboration, which in turn will produce to a new contract model that removes old areas of conflict, like late payment.

It should also ensure that the finished product works better in the long run – so addressing many of our performance and safety problems.

This, along with many of the other things that make our industry so unattractive to young people, will be transformed. Off-site construction is inherently safer, cleaner and more technologically driven – and if this makes it more profitable and less adversarial, building engineering services suddenly looks like a much more appealing career.

However, this is not just about medium to long-term transformation of our industry, there are also immediate problems confronting building engineering firms that must hasten the adoption of new ways of working.

Manpower

‘Mega projects’ like HS2, Heathrow’s controversial third runway and two new nuclear power stations will put an increasing strain on our pool of available skilled manpower – and our departure from the EU in March will step up the pressure still further.

Heathrow is likely to need up to 15,000 site workers and the two planned nuclear power stations at Hinkley Point and Wylfa Newydd – could each pull in more than 6,000 site-based technical staff. HS2 will absorb people from all over the country and it was recently reported that Crossrail was still recruiting M&E workers despite the nine-month delay on the project being put down to purely train-related issues.

These high profile projects have the pulling power and the budgets to attract the labour they need, but often at the expense of other employers who have their own commitments to fulfil. Next year engineering, infrastructure and housing projects of all shapes and sizes face the prospect of not being able to meet deadlines due to staff shortages.

The industry is already at full capacity; there are tower cranes all over our major cities and we are continually being exhorted to employ more skilled people, but where are they going to come from?

EngineeringUK says we need 1.8 million new engineers (in all fields) by 2025. The latest call from the Chartered Institute of Building suggested construction needs more than 150,000 new recruits by 2021 to keep up with the current demand. Increasingly, these figures look simply unattainable.

In the past, the knee-jerk reaction would have been to flood projects with labour from the EU. That will no longer be an option from next March, but on the other hand, that could well turn out to be one of the long-term benefits of Brexit.

Rather than simply bringing in people with varying levels and types of qualifications, we will have to ensure that everyone has completed the right training and has appropriate skills in line with these new working approaches.

We will still be short of people, but our lack of manpower will add fuel to the offsite revolution, which will also further improve quality. If you build something in a factory – rather than on a building site – you have a far better chance of ensuring it is finished to the right quality. You can manage the quality control process much more easily and provide better and safer working conditions for your people.

The House of Lords has spotted the importance of a big shift to offsite and modular methods of construction. Its Science and Technology Committee recently reported that offsite manufacture could improve productivity by as much as 70% while also delivering better and more energy efficient buildings

Compelling

“There are clear and tangible benefits from offsite manufacture for construction, which make a compelling case for its widespread use,” said committee chair Lord Patel. “The construction sector’s business models are no longer appropriate and are not supporting the UK’s urgent need for new homes and infrastructure.”

He highlighted that the construction industry’s current culture is not well suited to offsite methods and needs a radical overhaul.

offsite, modern methods of construction, BESA, Tim Hopkinson, engineers, skills, manpower, off-site, precurement
BESA President Tim Hopkinson

The report, Offsite Manufacture for Construction: Building for Change, attacked the fragmented culture of the sector and the lack of trust, which led to poor levels of the collaboration needed to make offsite manufacturing work. It also criticised the tendency for public sector procurers to put low cost ahead of “lifetime value”, which had often mitigated against adopting more modern approaches.

The report highlighted the fact that off-site manufacture for construction provides clear and tangible benefits including:

• Better quality buildings and infrastructure

• Enhanced client experience

• Fewer labourers and increased productivity

• Creating more regional jobs away from large conurbations

• Improved health and safety for workers

• Offering building safety advantages—making it easier to ensure buildings meet quality assurance standards

• Improved sustainability of buildings and infrastructure

• Reduced disruption to the local community during construction.

Off-site may address some of our immediate concerns with delivering existing and imminent projects, but it also requires significant long-term investment to really make inroads into some of our more fundamental problems. Not least, the current and future workforce will need re-training. The Lords committee urged the government to work with the industry to make sure that new technical qualifications will close this skills gap and equip the workforce for off-site working.

It also welcomed the Government’s commitment to changing its procurement models so that the public sector can procure for whole-life value rather than upfront cost. This, along with the Government’s ‘presumption in favour’ of off-site manufacture across five departments, will provide an important signal to the construction sector that there will be a consistent pipeline of projects, allowing companies to invest in off-site manufacturing facilities.

Designers, contractors and suppliers must all have early involvement in a project for off-site manufacture to be successful. This requires a change in business models among both private and public sector clients. Off-site usually requires greater upfront investment than ‘traditional’ construction techniques, but it is better placed to deliver building lifetime benefits like energy efficiency and low maintenance costs. However, to secure these long-term gains procurers will have to wean themselves off the habit of always going for the cheapest upfront price.

However, it is not only our clients who have to change. The uncomfortable truth for our sector is that many of the barriers to the greater uptake of off-site manufacture, such as a lack of collaboration and attitudes to risk, are cultural and can only be dealt with by the sector itself.

That is our challenge and one that we should embrace.

*Tim Hopkinson is serving his second year as BESA President and is managing director of E Poppleton and Son. Tim will be chairing a session on off-site construction during the BESA National Conference in London on November 1st.

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