The construction industry shapes our world.
From the buildings that we call home to our workplaces the roads and railway lines that
we travel on. The infrastructure that enables transportation and generates our power and
the environments where we nurture. The construction sector has a fundamental impact on every aspect
of our society. For centuries the way we build our world has remained largely unchanged.
We use many of the same materials and processes. We still build a prototype structure in its
final location on a site that is always unique, at the mercy of our surroundings and the elements.
Though the concept of developing structures away from their sites is nothing new our changing
cultures, rapidly expanding population, shifting workforce demographics and ever more technological
world are now heralding a new dawn for the concept of offsite techniques and seeing them
take a decided shift toward the world of manufacturing. The challenges we have as an industry now
are different and unprecedented. We have headlines that suggest we’re not able to deliver what
we said we were going to deliver. There’s a whole load of expertise in manufacturing
and automation and other sectors that we could never get our hands on because we were never
quite close enough to them. And it feels like the pace at which this will move could be
incredibly quick. If we drive too much in terms of cookie cutter
approach to design etc. I think we may end up not realizing the benefits and going back
to more traditional methods because people need to want it, it can’t be forced on people.
The move towards a different model of delivery for me is crucial. It’s crucial that businesses
are going to survive in terms of their financial stability. It’s also the key to growing margins.
So, could these approaches truly transform construction. Could they improve quality,
cut costs and raise productivity while helping us tackle issues like the lack of skills coming
into the sector and the housing crisis facing many nations. And why if the benefits are
so compelling have we not seen widespread uptake to date. This is how construction could
soon become manufacturing. Unlike almost every other sector that delivers
physical products to its customers and end users construction creates unique products
in unique outdoor locations every time it delivers. While some buildings and structures
can be constructed repetitively using the same designs and materials, such as restaurants,
hotels or prisons, no two sites are identical. As such the industry is in effect always delivering
prototype products for its customers while striving to achieve quality, efficiency and
a safe working environment without disrupting surrounding communities.
Approaching the design and construction process with an offsite mindset, that is much closer
to the concept of manufacturing, enables work to move away from the unique challenges of
each job site and into controlled conditions. Here economies of scale can be achieved through
production lines that embrace automation and use standardized elements. By having teams
focused on producing specific aspects for building component repeatedly under the same
conditions, productivity can be increased, and quality can be substantially improved
reducing the number of defects in the completed building. There is also the benefit of reducing
time spent on sites where the costs of providing temporary power, accommodation and facilities
can quickly add up and where the potential for disruption is high. While some of these
time and cost savings are of course offset or occasionally even cancelled out by other
elements of the process, the benefits of moving away from the site environment are still compelling.
Quite aside from the advantages in delivery, offsite approaches appear to provide attractive
solutions to a number of the challenges currently facing our wider society. These techniques
could allow housing to be delivered more rapidly in high density urban areas, helping to tackle
the housing crises currently facing many developed nations. They could also enable the fast construction
of infrastructure projects enabling new and emerging communities to grow. An underlying
contributor to the housing crisis currently facing the UK is a lack of skilled operatives
entering the construction workforce. Offsite approaches could help to address that by reducing
the demand for labour capable of constructing homes with traditional methods.
The extent to which works are taken away from construction sites varies significantly. At
one end of the spectrum volumetric solutions create entire enclosed spaces in a factory
and then deliver those to site for installation or assembly with other similar elements. Some
buildings may incorporate a degree of volumetric construction in the form of bathroom pods
or plant spaces. Conversely, non-volumetric systems are large elements of a building or
structure that are prefabricated before being brought to site. Panelised systems such as,
cross laminated timber or structurally insulated panel systems, known as SIPS, fall into this
category. As do unitised facades and large pre-cast concrete elements. Finally, component-based
approaches take the concept to a far more granular level. Effectively creating a kit
of parts and drawing on a series of predetermined items that can be produced, delivered to site,
installed, operated and maintained with ease. To understand more, I spoke to industry expert
Mark farmer, Founder and Chief Executive of Cast Consultancy and author of Modernize or
Die, a landmark report published in 2016. What does is ‘offsite’ mean to you?
It’s an umbrella term, so offsite construction essentially is an umbrella term and it means
a whole lot of different things but in essence it’s talking about transferring activities,
construction activities, that would have happened at the final workface on a construction site.
It’s talking about moving those somewhere else and that somewhere else might be a remote
factory hundreds of miles away. It might be a consolidation centre close to the site or
actually in some instances might mean that some form of assembly or pre-assembly is being
done actually on the site. What is the benefit of doing that?
One of the problems we have in the construction industry, it’s inherent in the way that we
deliver because we’re not building cars and airplanes, we’re building buildings that are
in locations and invariably we tend to do that building in situ at the final workface.
It’s almost like prototype every time. So everything we do is essentially bespoke.
Very little harnessing of repetition, standardization, commonality. Architects will respond to a
brief and design something from first principles and then we build that. And actually, if you’re
doing it right with the right process and use of technology then actually you start
to address the issue which is the real bugbear for construction which is productivity. And
I think the other thing is the term ‘offsite construction’, this a particular hobbyhorse
of mine, that perhaps we should be using the term offsite manufacturing. Around the world numerous countries, governments,
organizations and suppliers have embraced offsite approaches. In Singapore the country’s
construction regulator has introduced a mandatory target that 65 percent of high rise building
super structures should use prefabricated pre-finished modular construction. The project
team working on the Crowne Plaza Hotel extension at Singapore’s Changi airport claimed that
embracing this approach reduced the number of operatives on site by 40 percent and brought
the time to construct a floor down from two to four weeks, to just four days. The country’s
emerging Canberra Drive development consisting of eight mid-rise blocks is reportedly the
world’s largest modular construction project. In Australia, Hickory Group used prefabricated
elements to construct Melbourne’s 60 storey Collins house.
Improving quality, reducing program duration and overcoming the logistical challenges presented
by the 12.5m wide sites. Hickory adopted similar approaches on the citys La Trobe Tower.
In the United States, Factory OS recognised the benefits of embracing a manufacturing
mindset and market their volumetric solution as the answer to housing demand and the lack
of skilled workers entering the workforce. In a similar vein the slickly presented Katerra
are taking long established panelised and component-based construction approaches but
delivering them through a business that they claim is highly technology orientated, deliberately
employing expertise from beyond the construction sector to drive innovation.
Offsite approaches have also been employed across the UK market for several decades.
Indeed, the concept first came to prominence after the Second World War when the country
rebuilt large portions of its building stock. Particularly notable projects in recent times
include London’s 23 storey Creekside Wharf which is formed from volumetric modular units
and the vast Alder Hey Hospital which extensively embraced offsite fabrication techniques. On
the horizon, offsite approaches are being explored for some of the UK’s most significant
projects including the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point and Heathrow airports third
runway. On the surface the UK is seemingly well served
by firms with offsite capabilities. At the volumetric end of the spectrum established
businesses such as McAvoy, Elliott, Caledonian, Elements Europe and others support the delivery
of numerous projects across the country. Other more specialised volumetric providers have
found niches in areas where factory-controlled production is almost essential. Connect 2
Cleanrooms, for example, create modular clean rooms that meet infection control standards
and service a number of sectors. Meanwhile, in the non-volumetric arena businesses like
Innovare Systems produce panelised building elements that can serve a wide variety of
building typologies across a spectrum of different sites. At general contractor level notable
forward thinkers include Kier Group who have actively embraced offsite concepts on a number
of projects and Laing O’Rourke who claim that their Explore Industrial Park is the
most automated construction products facility in Europe. While many of these businesses
have served in the UK industry for several decades, it is only recently that excitement
around the potential to mass manufacture buildings, and in particular homes, has increased. Largely
as the country’s population has steadily grown, as the housing crisis has begun to bite, as
the build to rent market has risen and as the construction sector begins to feel the
effects of a severe skills shortage. Successfully answering these challenges with
a mass production solution is a seemingly alluring prize that has driven the creation
of several new ventures and investment decisions. Housing association Swan have opened a modular
factory in Basildon, while Berkeley Homes have begun developing modular solutions at
their factory in Kent and Ilke homes have invested in a factory in Harrogate. Underlining
the appeal, financial services giant Legal & General are now entering the market with
their modular homes offering, attempting to address the country’s housing crisis by constructing
a vast factory near Leeds. Though currently only part utilised the facility is expected
to steadily scale up production in the coming years.
However, despite this surge in interest last year just 1 percent of new homes in the UK
were manufactured offsite. If the benefits are so compelling and the industry is seemingly
almost over served by suppliers, why are we not seeing a widespread shift towards an offsite
manufacturing mindset in UK construction and in particular in the housebuilding sector.
For decades a number of factors have held us back. Firstly, at a cultural level, the
construction industry is notoriously resistant to change, and the methods used to construct
many of today’s buildings and infrastructure have remained fundamentally unchanged for
centuries. If that cultural barrier weren’t significant enough, we live in a society where
standardization is celebrated and even desired in areas but where the vast majority of consumers
seek a bespoke building or home. This is in notable contrast to some other cultures around
the world where offsite manufacturing techniques and modular homes have thrived. In the UK
many consumers perceive the term offsite to mean low quality boxy looking modular buildings
or homes that lack character or architectural appeal and the country’s Grenfell Tower disaster
has hardened views around the importance of building quality. These preconceptions are
reinforced by mortgage lenders and insurance firms who have been wary of backing such schemes
in the past dissuading consumers and developers alike. Several examples of attractive modular
architecture have emerged over the years only to fall from favour again as trends progress.
Within the industry some product teams have experienced low quality offsite solutions
or discovered that cost savings are merely offset elsewhere. Others lament the transporting
of air that some volumetric solutions require or that any value achieved is not always passed
on in a sector where margins are infamously low. The use of off the shelf customizable
volumetric solutions has also proven difficult to apply at scale across the wide variety
of physical sites that the construction industry contends with. Conversely, panelised solutions
have performed better, able to adapt to different footprints and site constraints, blending
the benefits of standardization with a sufficient degree of adaptability. The extent to which
true manufacturing approaches have been adopted across the UK sector is also highly varied.
While many use the terminology, the degree of automation, efficiency and scale within
UK offsite production facilities is on a broad spectrum. In addition to these barriers driving
ultimate value from offsite techniques relies on planning and designing for such an approach
from the outset. A challenging task in an industry where contracts and procurement routed
are geared towards the engagement of suppliers in the later stages of development.
What is stopping the construction sector taking that manufacturing approach?
So, one of the biggest barriers to the growth of the offsite sector has been the basic delivery
model that is adopted in construction at the moment and the basic environment, he economic
environment, the construction operates in as well. So, what we’ve moved to in the industry
is a highly flexible model where there’s very little willingness to invest in fixed costs;
plant, machinery, overheads. There’s very little willingness to employ directly, hence
the proliferation of subcontracting over the last 30 years. So actually, what you have
to do if you want to move to an offsite manufacturing led approach you have to invest. So. there’s
costs of setting up an establishment if you, depending on what scale you want to do it,
there is invariably the cost of leasing or building a facility. You have to equip it,
which is usually the primary cost of the machinery, and then you have to hold a payroll because
you can’t really do offsite manufacturing with a transient workforce, you need to employ
people, you need to train them. In terms of the people that have made the
investment where have you seen the best practice so far, in terms of people that are taking
the leap and are going down that road. The common theme for me are businesses that
have put technology front and centre in their propositions. So, they’re coming forward with
a manufacturing approach and invariably in the volumetric world that means a factory
as well and sometimes quite a large factory with lots of investment but there is a real
difference between, going back to the difference between offsite construction and offsite manufacturing,
building in a shed – I don’t believe is scalable for the future. Manufacturing in a factory
is the future and the manufacturing for me has to be digitally enabled. What we’re now
seeing, and it’s only within the last two or three years it’s starting to really become
apparent, is that the pace of change in technology is now fundamentally transforming how manufacturing
can be done. And that’s impacting business models its impacting the ability to create
digital platforms that are much more scalable in terms of manufacturing output. You create
digital design front end to your proposition that then feeds through to digital manufacturing
machinery in your factory. It’s all hard wired, it’s all parametrically controlled and then
you create something that I believe is a lot more scalable.
It’s technology that’s going to help, you think, make that step change, make that difference?
I think so. It’s a personal opinion but the evidence points I see when I go out in the
industry and talk to people and some of the sort of real things coming over the horizon
which are really really interesting and exciting all have technology placed at their heart,
Not as an afterthought, actually if anything it’s that they start with the technology
then work out what manufacturing is that supports the technology. I think sometimes you can
retrofit it and it doesn’t quite work. Keen to learn more about how these challenges
play out on the ground and to see an offsite facility up close, I went to meet Pete Blunt
who runs Innovare, a business specialising in the manufacture of structurally insulated
panel systems in Coventry. Pete, great to see you. So, what is Innovare?
What do you guys do? So, Innovare are an offsite construction specialist. We do the design,
manufacturing, installation of large format components direct to site to drive speed and
quality of offsite manufacture but also because everything we do is bespoke it provides the
flexibility to create different forms and shapes etc to meet with local architecture
requirements. So, people say SIPS, SIPS panels, what do
they mean? A SIP is a structurally insulated panel. What
happens is you have two boards bonded together to a structural insulation core and that gives
the benefit both strength and thermal performance. I guess there is quite a lot of adaptability
there, as compared to like volumetric or bigger offsite..
The reason why we do large format panels rather than 3D volumetric units is it gives us flexibility
onsite as well as the speed and quality aspect to it as well. So, we take the pre-kitted
elements through on these trolleys and then each individual panel is bespoke to meet a
particular application in the building. So, this here is one of the panels coming
together in front of us. So, these are the basic carcasses that are
assembled off-line and basically all the work is done within the panels so, where as you
can see here, every individual panels bespoke. So, we’ve put the openings for windows, doors
and any structural requirements so, lintels, key element posts within it. And so, what
that means is that we can do all the hard work in the panel and therefore it’s a lot
easier to install on site. The strength comes from the actual insulation itself bonded to
the boards either side to stop the force and crumpling. The additional timbers just provide
additional support in key element areas. Much of Innovare’s design planning process
and the way in which panels and components are tagged and tracked through the factory
is automated, with digital technologies playing a key role.
So, this is where the bonding takes place, right here in this machine behind us.
Yes, essentially the carcass has been loaded onto the bottom board which has had adhesive
applied to it and its now being applied to the top board.
So, after of the glues been applied and the boards been applied, is there a compression
that goes with that? Yes, it then goes into the press for about
15 minutes at that point. Literally when it’s in that press 15 minutes after that then that’s
bonded and solid and you can’t pull that off and that’s the great thing about the adhesive.
But also, you’ve therefore got to make sure you look after it properly as well.
So, after that compression the panels then into this zone here
Yes, after the panel has been pressed and consolidated what they do is they target the
panel and sometimes we need to put additional boarding on it in terms of fire board or anything
else like that, for additional performance. Again, trying to simplify what happens on
site as much as possible. And they flip it and do their QA checks on both sides of the
panel. I guess the beauty is here that you’re indoors,
it’s warm, it’s dry, it’s much more controlled.
Yeah it gives us the opportunity to really standardize the operation. Whilst we do bespoke
panels every single time, we can standardize the operation in terms of what we do and how
we do it which means therefore we get that consistency and quality through the product.
So a lot all those challenges you get on site and as you say every constructive site can
be different every site in the world is different, a lot that is taken away and you’re bringing
towards that manufacturing mindset. Very much so. I think the key difference from
this side is the fact that with everything being bespoke we get the flexibility of the
end product, but we get the quality and the speed from a manufactured product. Each of
the panels have come through here, they’ll get flipped over and what happens is they
put the membrane on top and this is either from a weathering perspective or even structural
fire performance perspective to ensure that they’ve got the right finish on. The other
side to consider this is our stacking sequence is absolutely critical to it. So, it’s making
sure that that stacking sequence, which has been delivered all the way through the process
is to make sure the first panel off is the first panel to be installed. So, the other
benefit from an offsite perspective is you can start reducing the number of people on
site but also improve the health and safety aspect. These one-way straps mean that we
can be loaded up, because all of these are crane installed, they can be loaded up and
then it’s a simple cut away. Therefore, you haven’t got people working at height and you
haven’t got people to do additional things on site to the consistency and quality that
we need. So, I know it’s a bit of a difficult question
but from start to finish how long does it take a panel to go through the factory.
The way we set it up means you’re probably looking at a couple of hours. A couple of
hours? Wow. Actually, what we try and do is for the external walls we’ve just talked through
we looked to get a panel off every 30 minutes. At the moment our fixed line sets to panels
every 30 minutes, and they can be up to 6m by 2.7m. So, a full elevation of a house or
you know you get three panels into an elevation of a school within that. That drives that
speed aspect. The issue is in terms of some of the other elements again it’s just like
size, speed and flexibility around that. Innovare’s geographic positioning in the
very centre of the UK is strategic putting it’s a serviceable distance from the majority
of its existing and potential customer base. Completed panels are loaded up in the right
order and out this door. We try and hold as minimal stock in terms
of finished goods as possible and then they’re loaded onto wagon in sequence to make sure
that it’s as easy as possible for the guys to get to onsite.
So, do you think the UK construction industry embracing offsite in a wider way would make
a difference overall in terms of quality of build, efficiency of projects, that sort of
thing? Does the industry need to be going down the offsite road?
I think the industry needs to improve productivity full stop. And also, in the advent of some
of the changes in regulations etc that drive for quality assurance is absolutely critical.
Offsite is one of those solutions that could provide some of the answer but it’s not the
overall answer. A lot of it is down to cultural acceptance of that drive for quality and consistency
through the process. What do you think it is that will make the
difference in terms getting more widespread uptake, what needs to happen do you think?
Lots of people talk about economies of scale in terms of more workload through it. For
me, fundamentally from a manufacturing perspective, not even just as a manufacturer but any business
model, it’s about economies of flow and actual consistency of workload and forward
visibility. Pipeline is critical when you have a manufacturing facility of any shape
or size. I think the rate of growth of offsite and
the level of uptake, the government getting involved in terms of driving that, shows massive
opportunity for the offsite sector. I think there are some studies done that offsite fabrication
as a cycle and it’s a 30-year cycle. So, unless we get it right now, we’ve got 30 years to
wait. So the opportunity is now and if we grab it
and really drive the benefits that it delivers in terms of that quality, that speed but also
the ability to create some amazing spaces then it can be here to stay. If we drive too
much in terms of the cookie cutter approach to design etc I think we may end up not realizing
the benefits and going back to more traditional methods because people need to want it, it
can’t be forced on people. So, it’s almost like flexibility within a
range. In the automotive industry they can have what they want but it’s from a set range
of cars in a certain number of colours, giving people choice from a standard set of elements.
The benefits and advance of digitization you can have information quicker to be able to
make better choices. So, it’s not about saying no to everything,
you’re saying if you want that or you need that then you can have it, but it comes at
a cost. So, people aren’t expecting everything bespoke for the same price, but they can have
what they want if they’re willing to pay for it. And the automotive do that in a great
way because they standardize, they standardize what those options can have. But you also
have choice because you have got lots of different automotive manufacturers to go to. So, on
one end you can go to a £250,000 Bugatti or you can go buy a run around for £6,000
to £7,000. You’ve got that choice but within that you’ve got choice in terms of specification.
For us we’ve got to learn from that rather than just saying it’s a Volkswagen Golf and
that’s it. So that was Innovare. I guess the big thing
that’s impressed me about that is the adaptability and the versatility that they’ve got with
their product. You know here they can make a panel of pretty much any shape or size with
window cut-outs built in with door cut-outs built in and that can be applied to that huge
variety of different types of project we have in construction and the unique nature of the
design pretty much of every building and the unique demands of each site that we that we
build on. What really struck me is the way they’re kind of taking the best of both worlds.
They’re bringing a lot of the work away from site as much as possible. They’re coming out
of the rain, the mud, the wind, the water, all those variables that you can’t control
and they’re trying to step into that world of manufacturing and the factory type approach
where you have a super controlled process that’s continually honed and improved over
time but with the adaptability and the versatility that’s needed in the construction industry.
I guess the impressive thing here is there is this huge factory, it’s buzzing, it’s
a military operation. They’re a company that’s there, that’s ready to go. But as Pete was
saying there’s just that demand that’s needed in the industry, that there’s that appetite,
that change in culture to get us to back this kind of stuff. And it feels like going away
from volumetric and the big kind of traditional modular companies. This gives the industry
the versatility it craves whilst standardizing at the same time and getting some of the efficiencies
in the economies of scale that come with factory manufacture. It’s been a really awesome experience.
I’m sort of seeing now, with that more component-based approach, where is this headed and where’s
it going next. I just want to pick up on this theme of standardization,
because obviously other industries have standardized and that’s kind of what’s driven their success.
So, the likes of IKEA which we touched on earlier, they do manufacture lots of different
things but they’re all available from a catalogue and you can have them in a set of
colours but that’s about it. That’s more or less the restriction with cars as well.
So, there’s the base model and you can have extras and you can change the colour but that’s
kind of it. Whereas with buildings there is this kind of culture that we want a bit more
bespoke, more of a prototype approach and that’s where it feels to me, that’s where
the challenge has been. But really with components and the manufacturing approach that’s almost
the way round that. It kind of draws on the benefits of manufacturing and standardization
but with that degree of flexibility. Yeah, I think what you’re touching on there
is a real opportunity that again can be enabled through technology. So, the idea of platforms,
common platforms, of design componentry or sub-assemblies is something that is absolutely
the norm in automotive. If you take any of the large car manufacturers, they will have
various models. But what you don’t realize is that within that range of models probably
40 percent of the components that are being used, particularly in the back of the drive
train going through to the dashboard that you don’t necessarily see, those functional
things, are common. And that ability to build off a common platform with components and
assemblies and then customize what it ends up looking like in the chassis. In building
terms that would be the cladding and shape and some of the internal finishes we just
haven’t really managed to grasp that construction. Quite recently we’ve had an announcement from
central government that they’re going to consult on a whole different way of building their
social and physical infrastructure programs. Schools, hospitals, prisons, their defence
assets, their transportation assets, they’re thinking about platform-based design delivery
and what that essentially means is that rather than volumetrically pre-assembling they will
break their build programs into an inventory of common components. What they’re going to
do is actually establish that as a client and the critical thing here is that for this
to work it has to be client driven. You have to set out your Lego set if you like
of things that you want to build from. It has to be demand led because actually if you’re
going back to where the existing offsite industry is at the moment, they’re all coming forward
with individual responses, they’re not demand led, they’re the manufacturers viewpoint
on what they think the market wants. At the moment the manufacturing sector is leading
the clients and actually I think we need to get a bit of balance where the clients procure
intelligently, procure in bulk but retain the ability to customize what they’re building
so you don’t have homogenous buildings that all look the same, cookie cutter, because
that won’t be acceptable, planners won’t except that, architects won’t accept that.
As I was saying earlier, we live in this world where we accept standardization, we actually
love standardization in some things, but when it comes buildings everyone wants that.
You know this is a really important point Fred because if we force standardization to
the extent it affects the architecture and the aesthetic and the planning context it
will never happen. Because there’s so many detractors of wanting to see offsite disappear
down the road, vested interests whatever you want to term it, but part of that will be
an architectural lobby that perceives offsite to be poor quality and one of the challenges,
if the offsite sector and manufacturing agenda is going to grow, it has to technically address
that challenge and be able to prove that buildings that have more manufactured content you can
look at and think ‘I can’t tell, that could be a bespoke building’ and that’s going
to be a challenge that I think again technology will be the element of enablement now.
The key to unlocking the ultimate value promised by offsite manufacturing approaches could
lie in these component-based systems. Solutions that break buildings and structures down to
their simplest ingredients and builds from a pre-determined kit of parts, sustainably
sourced from localized supply chains. Such systems could give us the benefits of standardization
while providing a sufficient degree of adaptability to meet sites and planning constraints. The
UK is in fact leading the world in this area. To learn more, I visited Bryden Wood’s Jamie
Johnson at the Construction Platforms Research Centre.
Hi Fred, welcome to the Construction Platforms Research Centre.
Thanks for having me. Shall we have a look inside?
Absolutely. So, this is our testing facility. Bryden Wood’s
were set up specifically to look at how manufacturing does the things it does, better productivity,
better quality, better features and things, year on year while construction fundamentally
hasn’t changed for hundreds of years, so we’re trying to develop construction systems that
can be deployed quickly, safely, with high productivity at scale. So, think IKEA for
construction, we’re trying to develop the IKEA kit of parts here. To do that we need
to try lots of things, we need to fail at lots of things, we need to perfect things
in a sort of safe environment. This is our kind of sandpit where we try things out before
they’re ready to then be deployed at scale on live sites.
Having analysed the array of buildings constructed by the UK government over recent years; from
prisons and military accommodation, to hospitals and schools, Bryden Wood and their partners
have identified the core components found in almost every structure. From there they’ve
explored how best to manufacture those components using high levels of automation to drive quality
and productivity. Concurrently their teams have also identified building components that
could be produced by low skilled workers, helping to overcome the severe lack of skilled
operatives entering the workforce. Trialling this with the UK’s Ministry of Justice proved
highly successful with prisoners able to construct a complete two storey block after limited
training. The trial significantly improved morale among inmates and saw several prisoners
contribute ideas as they engaged with the project.
So, this is what we call a super block. This part of the façade system that we developed
for Platform 1 for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). This is an individual unit, these would
then be stacked ten high to make what’s called a mega block, and then that gets lifted into
position and it’s the façade system of the finished building.
So, what are these super blocks made up of? They were designed to use pre-existing, easily
available commodity products. So, this is a thing called gravel boards, commodity material
made by the mile. We actually had our own moulds made specifically for the MoJ project.
Rigid fireproof insulation that keeps the two gravel boards apart. Band straps, stainless
steel band straps, exactly the kind of thing that you see on pallets. Brick slips because
the planners liked brick, it weathers well and it’s quite a personable tactile material
and there would have been mineral wool insulation inside.
So, we’ve spoken a lot about how simple these are put together, they look really simple
to put together, can be done by low skill workers. Obviously, you’re one of the global
thought leaders on this area and I’m sort of a minor YouTube star, but we are technically
low skilled workers when it comes to this so, shall we have a go you and I put some
together. Absolutely, let’s have a go.
OK so, this is literally an unbuilt super block.
Yep, this is the gravel board with the brick slips that we’ve just seen on that table so
this is the starting point. So, you get one of these lying down.
Jamie and I are each going to have a go at putting a super block together now and we’re
going to compare at the end to see whose super block basically looks better than the other,
lets see. So, start with this?
You start with this then you have your pre-cut insulation blocks, take a block, that goes
on top, that lines up. Same again on the other side. Then the next gravel board sits on top.
Strips go in now, band straps. These are just fed through grooves in the
gravel boards. Yeah. So again, this is just industry standard
basic equipment. This literally just look like what you see
on the pallets. Yeah, it’s exactly the same.
You’ll notice that Jamie’s a lot more slick at this than I am which is a giveaway
that he’s been secretly practicing. How long it takes for a super block together?
So we were down to 3.5 minutes, couldn’t get much below 3.5 minutes while keeping quality
but actually 3.5 minutes to make one of these is, you know, they were churning out significant
numbers with a with a handful of people. And how long would a super block tend to last
for? Everything was designed for a m60 year lifespan
so the same as for traditional construction but again concrete, inert material, concrete,
bricks slips, stainless steel, there’s nothing in there which has a particular lifespan problem.
It’s remarkably quick to pick up isn’t it, it’s not complicated, it’s really straight
forward. And really quite satisfying.
So, that’s it. I mean they look identical but if you think one super block is more super
than the other do let us know in the comments below.
So, what have we got here? This is our prototype of Platform 3. This
is our 9m by 10.5m grid platform that we’re developing for large span offices. This is
an animation that we put together to show our first thoughts about what automated construction
would look like. This is predicated on Platform 3 which is our office platform so it’s designed
to make a 10.5m by 9m grid. So, what you see is the long span elements going in here. What’s
coming in here is then these spanning elements. This is a known product. Manufacturing is
very good at bringing work in progress to the point of use. So, this is showing a rig
that’s bringing the work in progress beams. They could be lifted up into position with,
again known technology, a thing called reach stackers. The next thing we’d have is reusable
bracing. On the top left you can see the bracing that we developed up in Platform 2. This is
lightweight, aluminium, reusable, very accurate, self-locating. What this does is hold the
beams. Firstly so they’re very very straight and accurate. It also means that we can very
quickly, as soon as the concrete is ready, we can go and walk on top of it because some
of the load is taken through that bracing. So we’d like to bring in these shutters with
the rebar already on top of them, rather than have pre cast heavy units made somewhere,
brought to site and craned in, we can achieve the quality of pre cast by having very very
accurate shutters which, again because it’s a part of a system, we can do that. Lift it
into place and then we pour the concrete or we place the concrete on site so, we get pre
cast quality but without the downside of pre cast. Again, there’s existing technology that
would allow you to tie the rebar together. Very automated, very productive, without people
and the health and safety risk of walking on top of the concrete. Then rather than pour
the concrete on from the top we had a plan to pump the concrete in from underneath. And
actually, that’s exactly how jet engines are fuelled so that technology exists. We’ve since
gone and bought some of the connectors, we’ve tried this, and it works quite well actually.
You pour the concrete from beneath. We then guessed that you could get a piece of equipment
that would again automated level the slab, it turns out that someone makes that. We then
guessed you could get robot power floaters, someone makes that. This is all technology
that exists but hasn’t been placed together. If you could just corral all of this stuff
you could suddenly move things forward. So, then strike the form work, MEP units then
get lifted up. Again, because the superstructure is super accurate that works really nicely.
The next thing we start to do is now we’re into that kind of level of granularity is
use discrete event simulation to model these processes. So that’s time-based modelling
that we use to optimize manufacturing processes for GlaxoSmithKline for instance. We can work
lots of virtual shifts and work out what’s the optimum number of people, equipment, machines,
what’s the tact time we’re working to and we can really fine tune this until we get
maximum productivity on site. Our guess is that we could deliver buildings potentially
50% quicker with 75% fewer people. And, of course, once you get the superstructure up
and it’s incredibly accurate, it unlocks a lot of existing systems. There are already
very good systems for installing cladding accurately, MEP systems etc. So, we spend
quite a lot of time in the superstructure because once you get that right it unlocks
productivity in every other work stream and suddenly you start to get a very cohesive
system. This is effectively permanent shuttering for
what will be a concrete beam. Here you can see one with the reinforcing bar in. As you
saw in the animation what we want to do is bring a whole stack of these together and
then use a reach stacker to lift it up into position. This is our really early prototype
of that stage that rig. This is the real start of that process of taking something from the
animation, trying it out, bringing it to life and seeing how it goes.
I guess testing it here in this space, it’s much better to learn that way than when you’re
on your first project. Yes, typically what we’ll do we’ll have a
go at it here with things like the timber version. Once we’ve ironed out most of the
problems, we’ll then try it outside at scale. Again, they’ll be a load of learning that
comes out of that. And then that moves us into the next stage before we start to bring
it on site. We wouldn’t ever do a thing on site that we haven’t tested a bunch of times,
ironed out all the things, written all the method statements and know exactly how to
do it quickly and safely. While offsite approaches have been present
but not widely adopted across the UK industry to date the pressures of our expanding population,
housing crisis and severe industry skills shortage, combined with significant advancements
in technology, appear to be rapidly advancing the market. The broad spectrum of solutions
available, from volumetric systems to SIPS, component manufacture and even 3D printing,
all seemingly have their place. While customizable volumetric solutions are perfect for a range
of requirements, the key to widespread uptake in every area of construction could lie in
panelised systems and component-based platforms. Solutions that offer higher degrees of adaptability
while retaining the benefits of standardization and manufacturing. Making our industry more
accessible, broadening the talent pool and enabling us to build in a faster higher quality
and more productive way, while also meeting a deep-rooted cultural desire for unique buildings
and the challenges that each site presents is a tall order. But from these tough parameters
it appears that much of the innovation and advancements now being made could be about
to fundamentally disrupt the way we choose, design, construct and even think about the
built world that surrounds us. If you enjoyed this video and would like to
get more from the definitive video channel for construction, subscribe to The B1M.