In this article, Richard Tonkinson, Executive Director of Offsite Solutions, the UK’s longest established manufacturer of bathroom pods, provides some insight into the growing demand for factory-built bathrooms and the latest trends.
The use of bathroom pods in the residential sector has increased hugely in recent years. Prior to that, bathroom pods were most commonly used in student accommodation and hotel projects. A significant change is the adoption of pods across all market sectors and price points. Volumes in higher specification residential applications are also increasing.
The majority of bathroom pods currently manufactured are for private residential schemes – apartments for rent or market sale – hotels and student accommodation. The use of pod technology in these residential sub-sectors has been enormous.
The benefits of using pods in high-rise buildings are well documented but their application for detached, low-rise housing is currently less prominent. However, we are now seeing a significant rise in future demand in medium-density, medium-rise housing.
A recent trend is the large shopping centre groups reallocating surplus land to residential and particularly to build-to-rent. These schemes are often three to four-storey buildings where offsite construction is being designed in from the outset to accelerate delivery, reduce programme times and improve the quality of construction.
We are also receiving more enquiries and interest from developers of senior living schemes and have engineered a solution that allows pods to be installed into timber-framed structures.
What is a bathroom pod?
In simple terms, a pod is only a pod for the purpose of manufacturing and transportation to site. Once it is installed, it is just a bathroom and is little different from an in-situ built bathroom, aside from an improved quality of fit and finish.
The principal function of the pod carcase is to allow offsite fitting out and delivery to site. The carcase is typically either steel-framed or GRP composite, depending on the end use and budget:
- Steel-framed pods allow traditional tiled interior finishes and a higher level of design flexibility. Applications include large-scale apartment schemes and hotels.
- GRP pods have lower capital expenditure and are robust and easy to maintain and clean. These pods are widely used for student accommodation, social housing and hospitals.
New innovations in pod technology include:
- Hybrid concrete/steel pods for high specification wet rooms and luxury bathrooms
- Demountable GRP pods for projects with restricted access
- Hybrid GRP pods which offer an enhanced finish with options such as recesses and tiled feature walls
- Floorless pods for projects where a continuous level floor finish is required.
Key drivers for the use of bathroom pods
Pods offer significant benefits for projects on constrained urban sites where the space for material storage is a particular challenge. Fully completed bathrooms can be supplied and delivered to a carefully planned programme for installation in just a few hours – removing the need for additional storage on site and reducing the number of vehicle movements.
One of the key drivers for bathroom pod procurement is to reduce programme. By moving bathroom construction into a controlled factory environment, the programme saving on a large residential project can be as much as 20 weeks. This means a faster return on investment for the developer or earlier occupation for the client – and much greater certainty of completion on time and to budget.
Site-based bathroom construction typically requires around seven different trades and 10-15 operations plus the required drying times. With offsite manufacture, this is reduced to a single pod supplier, which means less risk of delays and simplified procurement. Bathroom pods also reduce the requirement on site for skilled subcontracted labour, supervision and the associated health and safety obligations.
The production line environment of pod manufacture offers consistently higher quality, and improved productivity. The repetitive nature of bathroom pod production means that the units can be completed to higher quality standards than on site.
Pre-delivery testing in the factory should be rigorous and quality assurance procedures stringent for ready-to-use installation, mitigating defects and remedial works.
How to procure bathroom pods
The most critical consideration for bathroom pod procurement is to engage early. Pods should be designed into the first stages of a construction project and installation must be allowed for in the build-up of walls and floors to reduce the likelihood of access issues.
To optimise efficiency, specifiers should rationalise the number of design types in size and shape, and variations, such as left and right-hand versions, as far as possible. This is key to achieving the economies of scale required for efficient offsite manufacture.
When procuring bathroom pods, we would always advise checking:
- Guarantees and accreditations – The manufacturer’s guarantees should be 12 years for steel-framed construction and 50 years for GRP composite pods, with back-to-back guarantees for sanitaryware and fittings.
- Customer service commitments – In-house design resources, a dedicated site manager who will visit site at regular intervals; and after sales support to advise on any installation issues.
- Quality control – A robust pre-delivery testing regime should be in place – look at the procedures closely. All pods should be supplied with a unique ID number, so they are fully traceable throughout their life for enhanced quality control.
- Visit the factory – Look closely at the manufacturer’s financial stability, figures for repeat business, and project management expertise. Talk to past customers as part of the procurement process.
- Pod construction – Examine the pod construction details to ensure longevity. For example, the entire walls and floor to the wet area of a steel-framed pod should be fully tanked – not just half of the shower wall. GRP pods should have robust wall detailing with encapsulated honeycomb polypropylene. Be aware that cheaper alternatives such as cardboard and timber can be susceptible to delamination.
Some projections for the future
We expect the demand for private rented housing will drive more development in this area and it will continue to be a strong market for bathroom pods.
The adoption of bathroom pods by the major housebuilders will require a change of mindset – and to facilitate that, workshops can be hosted to work through how bathroom pods can be used for different building types and projects to maximise the benefits, whilst still offering a degree of customer choice.
Developers often give homebuyers the opportunity to specify a wide range of finishes for their new homes. However, in order to suit offsite manufacture, the choice for the bathrooms has to be rationalised and the number of footprints limited. It is still possible to offer a choice of finishes, such as colour palettes, provided the bathroom footprints are consistent, specification decisions fit with the production scheduling, and there is sufficient volume for production runs of at least 100 bathrooms.
Quite often when members of a project team have worked with bathroom pods, they are very keen to take those learnings and skillsets to their next project to improve efficiency. We have seen this knowledge transfer work very well, for example, from student accommodation projects to build-to-rent schemes.
Offsite Solutions was awarded a £1.6m contract for Crown Student Living. Crown Place in Swansea was Offsite Solutions’ sixth and largest student accommodation scheme for the developer and brings the total value of its projects for Crown Student Living to £6.8m.
The waterside scheme will have an extensive range of communal facilities including an on-site gym, cinema, hotel-style lounges and 1000ft² of commercial space.
The Swansea project awarded to Offsite Solutions follows its earlier student schemes for Crown Student Living in the university cities of Bristol, Reading, Cardiff, Portsmouth and most recently Norwich, which is nearing completion.
The bathroom pod solution
Offsite Solutions manufactured 645 GRP composite bathroom pods working with Midas who are main contractor for the £40m scheme on Swansea’s waterfront. All the bedrooms in the nine-storey development are ensuite and furnished to a high standard.
Designed by ECE Westworks, Crown Place has shower rooms with a tile-effect wall finish, a large mirror, wall cabinet, contemporary dark bamboo-style flooring, and specially-designed access for ease of maintenance.
The ensuite shower pods were designed by Offsite Solutions in collaboration with Crown Student Living.
Alan Pulver, Director of Crown Student Living, said: “Our aim is to create an exceptional student experience which is reflected in our approach to bathroom construction. The quality of the ensuite shower rooms is definitely a significant factor in students’ choice of accommodation – which can be their home for up to three years. We have specified Offsite Solutions’ bathroom pods from our very first development – a refurbishment and conversion project in Bristol – and for every scheme after that.”
“This use of offsite construction allows us to have every ensuite built to the same exacting quality standards. It also gives us the benefit of a much shorter programme than in-situ bathroom construction. There is no assembly on site, only M&E connections which are extremely efficient and fast. We would never consider traditional bathroom construction for any of our schemes.”