Why offsite manufacturing is the future of housebuilding

Offsite manufacturing must be prioritised to help solve housing crisis, writes Jonathan Hunter, director of Elecosoft

Building more homes is a key part of the solution to the UK’s complex  housing problem, and we agree with many, that improving the speed and efficiency of housebuilding is crucial to enable the delivery of the 250,000 new homes every year that the country needs.

The government has recently announced its commitment to boosting off-site manufacturing with policies aimed at supporting the sector. The industry too is recognising offsite manufacturing as a viable solution to skilled staff and material shortages and delivering more homes. Recently, Berkeley Homes announced its purchase of a factory in Kent to develop offsite manufacturing. It aims to build a quarter of its homes through off-site manufacturing or modular building. With so much attention on modular, is this really the answer to the country’s housebuilding woes and is enough being done to help this innovative new method become fully viable and effective?

The need to boost offsite manufacturing has never been more pressing, with the UK construction industry suffering from a dearth of skilled labour, which is set to get worse with an ageing workforce, possible consequences of Brexit, and poor productivity, according to the Farmer Review, published by the Construction Leadership Council in 2016.

Therefore, it is pleasing to see that offsite manufacturing is beginning to be embraced, albeit slowly, by the industry. Berkeley Homes’ recent announcement could eventually see it build 1,000 homes per year at its new factory. Whilst Croydon Council has recently granted planning consent for the world’s tallest modular buildings, comprising 44-storey and 38-storey build to rent towers that will accommodate 546 homes. The scheme is funded by Greystar and the developer, Tide Construction, has already built Europe’s tallest modular tower, a 29-storey student accommodation scheme in north London.

Large scale investment is starting to flow into offsite manufacturing with a number of pioneers such as L&G, a major player in the build to rent sector, investing £55m in a large facility in Leeds and Laing O’Rourke providing £104m for a factory in Worksop.

The interest in offsite manufacturing stems from its far improved speed, sustainability and ability to save costs compared with traditional building methods. Using offsite manufacturing, building can start at the same time as site preparation with both taking place in parallel. As building would traditionally begin after the site has been prepared, this saves valuable time. Furthermore, offsite manufacturing is far less affected by building delays caused by poor weather and staff shortages. As a result of these advantages, off-site manufactured buildings start-to-completion times are cut by 50%.

With fabrication taking place in a factory – a controlled environment compared to a building site, defects are far fewer and it is possible to manufacture with millimetre precision. offsite manufacturing’s economies of scale and increased opportunities for automation also offer considerable cost advantages compared to traditional building methods.

But, despite offsite manufacturing’s many advantages, the UK has been slow compared to countries such as Sweden, Germany and the US in its adoption. There are several reasons for this: offsite manufacturing needs large up-front investment in developing a factory; whilst lenders in the past have been more cautious about providing purchases of pre-fabricated homes mortgages due to unfamiliarity with modern offsite manufacturing homes. However, warranty schemes are being developed while an increasing number of lenders are providing finance for offsite manufacturing homes.

Although there is growth in the number of homes built by offsite manufacturing; only a few contractors have experience in modular construction of residential property, impacting take up. Technology, careful planning and the sharing of accurate data is key to making offsite manufacturing work. BIM and its information and management systems such as IconSystem are integral in digital construction. Having worked with developers using offsite manufacturing, I have seen first-hand how essential it is that all parties, planners, architects, developers and contractors have the most up to date information, which is often held separately – causing significant problems. As a result, sophisticated digitalised information systems have been designed to facilitate a common data environment, enabling live updates and creating a single version of the truth – helping all building projects, but particularly those built by offsite manufacturing.

This pioneering technology is helping to pave the way for offsite manufacturing but more could be done. The government currently has several incentives to boost offsite manufacturing in residential building. The most significant of these is the Home Build Fund, a £3bn fund to assist small to medium size housebuilders to adopt offsite manufacturing, and the Accelerated Construction Scheme, which encourages house builders to use time-saving technologies to build out schemes. Additionally, in the last budget, the government announced it would promote offsite manufacturing by using its purchasing powers with government departments adopting a presumption in favour of offsite manufacturing across suitable capital programmes, where it represents best value for money.

offsite manufacturing has already been behind some of the country’s most high-profile projects including The Shard, which used our PowerProject technology, and I am confident that with digital innovation and support systems underpinning its use, it will become the go-to construction method behind the building of our homes.

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