Charlie Fleet, Managing Director at wallcoverings specialist, Reco Surfaces, discusses how offsite construction has kept the construction industry building and how it could lead to changes in our built environment.
2020’s unique challenges have shone a spotlight on the built environment like never before. We’ve been forced to think and then think again about how we build, structure and refurbish buildings that are usually taken for granted to make sure that they are suitable for use in the current climate.
This is especially true in the public sector, where hospitals, schools, social housing, council offices and all the spaces that make up our communities have been closely scrutinised for their ability to enable social distancing and minimise the risk of spreading COVID-19.
However, the pressures of the virus have put a strain on the construction industry’s ability to build and upgrade these facilities. The lockdown not only caused a backlog of work which now needs to be done, but previously busy sites are also cutting back to skeleton crews in order to maintain 2m between tradespeople, further slowing down the speed at which projects can be completed.
This slowdown is all the more concerning given the fact that it’s imperative that we have robust public sector facilities that are prepared for the next curveball or crisis lurking around the corner.
How offsite has kept construction moving
For all the above reasons, many new-build developments and refurbishment projects are turning to offsite construction methods to speed up work without compromising on safety or building standards.
As the name suggests, offsite construction is when sections of the building are put together offsite in specialist factories and then pieced together onsite. This allows for large quantities of identical building parts to be created much faster than normal while providing a number of economies of scale and product quality benefits.
The potential for a faster, more streamlined construction process was highlighted by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), which estimated that if 25% of the UK construction sector moved to offsite building it would achieve a 3.6% increase in productivity.
This method of working is inherently better suited to a world of social distancing and enhanced hygiene sensitivity, as the work is taken away from busy and chaotic construction sites and instead carried out within enclosed factories that can be partitioned and where the movement of staff can be easily controlled.
As the factories could keep rolling, it allowed projects to keep building without having to scale back on the timetable due to trades having to be delayed, shifts having to be reorganised and quarantine measures limiting the number of people who can be actively working at any one time.
Another significant aspect to minimising disruption is that by sourcing materials from British suppliers and manufacturers of offsite products, developers don’t need to rely on long international supply lines – which the past year has shown are at risk of interference and long delays, should overseas factories close or lockdowns restrict the movement of products from abroad. Being less reliant on imported materials will potentially be an even more important factor when the Brexit transition period ends in December.
Offsite in action
The ability of offsite construction to not only maintain construction work but, in fact, to speed it up was exemplified by the Grange University Hospital in Cwmbran, Wales. This hospital was not intended to be completed until 2021, however, when the scale of the COVID-19 crisis and the increased workload that it would place on the NHS became apparent, the health board in charge decided that the hospital’s facilities needed to be ready as soon as possible.
Fortunately, the hospital was already being developed in line with modern methods of construction (MMC) which included offsite techniques, an approach which was estimated to provide a programme saving for the hospital of 23% compared to a traditional build.
The agility of offsite construction meant that the development could be significantly fast-tracked when the epidemic reared its head in March, so that 350 new beds could be made available by April – hospital space which was not meant to have been operational for another 12 months. The commissioning and soft landings period in particular was reduced from 12 weeks to only four. This means that the region’s healthcare infrastructure is in a much better place to deal with an influx of patients in the event of a second spike of COVID-19 infections.
Designing for a post-COVID-19 world
Moving large parts of the building process into factories means that materials and innovations can be chosen that just wouldn’t be practical for traditional, onsite construction. This gives designers greater flexibility and a wider variety of solutions to choose from, a factor which is going to help public sector facilities rethink their spaces to cope with the challenges of COVID-19.
This is a trend that we believe will be particularly evident in the design of kitchens and bathrooms, as these are priority spaces for hygiene and infection control measures. At Reco Surfaces, we’ve already experienced an increased interest in solutions that are in any way more hygienic than the systems that would normally be used, so that building operators can benefit from the added safety net this provides.
A more agile construction industry
For the public sector, the pressure to deliver isn’t going to let up, especially when it comes to growing a number of key areas such as healthcare and education over the next couple of years.
While adoption of offsite construction in the UK overall is still relatively low, with only approximately 5% of the industry operating in this way, the lessons that have been learnt over the past year are likely to see more and more large-scale infrastructure projects adopt this approach. This is a trend that can already be seen by decisions such as the Government choosing to use offsite construction as part of a £3bn project to build around 30 new schools a year for the next four years.
Without an even wider acceptance of offsite though, it’s going to be very difficult to achieve the levels of agility, flexibility and responsiveness that the construction industry is going to need to both effectively adapt to quickly evolving situations, as well as meeting the scale of the public sector’s growth targets.