Finding more value in offsite fabrication

paul cooper
In need of a better selling job — Paul Cooper on off-site manufacture.
Offsite fabrication is the ultimate in value engineering for building services. We just have to be better at selling it, says PAUL COOPER.)ffsite manufacture of building-services plant is value engineering in its purest sense. Not only does it save time and money but it also improves quality, cuts defects, improves health and safety and is now making a major contribution to the drive for sustainable design. Convince All this is known and much of it accepted by many, but because many of the benefits are hidden — or considered to be ‘soft’ — it is still hard to convince specifiers that prefabrication is not more expensive than traditional procurement. We have to find better ways of evaluating the benefits of offsite fabrication to explain the savings to clients and encourage contractors to adopt this approach. We need to establish a ‘value system’ for all aspects of the process so our customers can really make a decision based on a like-for-like calculation. For example, how do you establish the value to a client of reducing the number of operatives on site? It might not be a major issue at all for many people, but minimising site numbers can be the difference between success and failure in some projects due to space constraints, accident rates, lack of skilled labour and the cost and logistics of supervision. Site labour accounts for about a quarter of total average project costs, but using prefabricated plant rooms means you can at least halve the services element of that cost. Managing the interfaces between multiple trades is often the weak point in a project, which is why prefabrication of risers, heat exchangers, electrical services and as much plumbing as possible is often the best approach. Prefabrication also dramatically cuts the amount of rework that needs to be done when disparate components are brought together and found not to work. The trouble is that much of this is not considered until it is too late to go back. If you are going to prefabricate you need to be planning it from day one —which is another reason why we need to do a better selling job to clients and main contractors. Speed tends to be of the essence in most projects these days, and people habitually work right up to the deadlines — but what is the benefit to the end client if you could deliver the project ahead of schedule? Think of the reduced labour costs and the earlier return on their investment by having the building ready and producing. If that has not been factored in at the outset, however, there is no obvious benefit to the client. That is why these benefits need to be evaluated at tender stage and then used as a sales aid. Delivering the impossible Former BAA chairman John Egan stated 10 years ago that it would be impossible to build Heathrow’s Terminal 5 unless the industry reformed itself. T5 is now nearing completion and over 60% of the project was manufactured offsite. What greater value can prefabrication offer than actually making the impossible possible — as at T5? In our arcane procurement process, prices quoted for individual pieces of plant rarely include a premium to cover the cost of the buyer sending out enquiries to the seven successful suppliers — plus at least 14 unsuccessful ones. Evaluating and weighing up those quotes, negotiating final prices, sending out orders, expediting delivery and site co-ordination is all done, effectively, for free. Much of this extraneous activity is eliminated with offsite fabrication. However, if you have not put a value on it in the first place how do you present an economic argument to your client for leaving it out? The building-services industry has always been guilty of giving away too much of its expertise, and the growth in prefabrication has brought that into sharp focus. To do pre-fabrication well, you also have to establish a more disciplined ‘right-first-time’ design process. Consultants have to think more like manufacturers and see their system as a product. They also have to suppress their natural instinct to re-invent the wheel every time and make better use of standard components. The sizes and shapes of the finished product can be different, but made up of a series of easily replicable units — many of which could be taken out and reused when the plant room comes to the end of its working life. The architectural vision of the building does not need to be compromised, but we do need to cut down on the number of people involved in initial and then detailed design. Quality of life Pre-fabrication is not solely about saving money and reducing site waste. It is also a quality-of-life issue. What value can you put on not keeping your workforce hanging around all day waiting for a crucial component to arrive and then having to work through the night to commission the system? What about the benefits of giving operatives more comfortable, safer and weatherproofed working conditions close to where they live? When we set up Ormandy six years ago, we knew that providing traditionally manufactured water-heating products would be our bread and butter, but that offsite fabrication was our future. Today over half of our growth is due to the rising demand for our prefabricated plantroom sets, and we have just acquired our 100-year-old competitor Rycroft from the Baxi Heating group. The value of bringing products and technical expertise together under one roof is at the heart of our business, which is why we also recently acquired boiler manufacturer Hartley & Sugden and Newade Stainless, which produces high-quality stainless-steel products for the pharmaceutical, process and food industries. The Dreh and Heatrae Industrial businesses also joined as part of the Rycroft acquisition to further extend our offsite offering. We are living proof that offsite fabrication is the future for our sector, but if it is to reach its full potential a much harder selling job is needed. Paul Cooper is managing director of Ormandy Ltd.
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