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Why is the House of Lords Looking at Offsite Construction?

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee launched an inquiry in March 2018 to examine the case for greater use of offsite construction.

Advanced construction techniques being examined by an ancient institution in a historic building makes for an interesting contrast. But the outcome of the inquiry should help advance the cause of more widespread use of offsite techniques on public building programmes.

As a recognised specialist in offsite construction, Innovaré chose to submit written evidence to the committee. The committee is specifically trying to identify the opportunities offered by offsite manufacture in the face of the increasing housing crisis and, to some extent, for schools, building programmes, and the social implications of that for individuals and society as a whole. It also seeks to understand the factors that influence clients, architects, design engineers, contractors and the supply chain to choose offsite manufacture.

Chair of the Committee, Lord Patel, said:

“The construction industry is vital to solving some of the pressing problems facing the UK, such as a lack of affordable housing and replacing ageing infrastructure. Whilst off-site manufacturing is not a new idea, the level of technology now available means it is much more viable as a modern method of construction.”

The evidence submitted to the committee by Innovaré highlighted the incorrect assumption that offsite means volumetric (complete pods or mini buildings). Achieving the right balance between standardisation to reduce cost, and flexibility to make the best use of land and space is both a challenge and an opportunity. Incorporating large format SIPs into the design can deliver this optimum blend of standardisation, creativity and flexibility.

Opportunities

The committee considered the many advantages of panelised offsite construction including:

  • Reduced programme timings – such as Reigate Primary School which was completed 14 weeks ahead of schedule, or Witham railway station where a new ticket office was installed in one week instead of eight.
  • Reduced risk to programme timings from adverse weather.
  • The capability to complete projects in densely populated areas with minimal disruption – for example Kidwells Estate where Innovaré replaced 84 homes and added a further 120 apartments without existing tenants moving off site during construction.
  • Promoting economic growth outside of London and main conurbations.

Workforce

Skills availability may affect more widespread adoption of offsite. Greater integration skills are demanded at a higher level in technical planning and development. Increasing numbers of people with the specialist skills to operate manufacturing facilities will be required.

The other important point is that architectural and structural designs have to be completed and signed off much earlier in the project development process. The design is more difficult to change during the project implementation and delivery phases.

There is substantial opportunity for creative design – it simply needs to be done at the outset and not drip fed and continually amended through the building phase. The positive side of this is that buildability and technical constraints are managed during the design phase and are less likely to cause problems and delays during execution.

It is hoped that the inquiry will accelerate and extend the debate on how to solve problems by looking beyond conventional thinking, leading to more widespread use of offsite techniques. To a large extent this means providing certainty and transparency in the flow of work. This will be essential due to the extremely high initial investment in manufacturing facilities and raw material stocks required.

The findings are not yet known but hopefully this will be a significant step in making panelised offsite a mainstream and more efficient construction option. Click here to find out more about how offsite simplifies construction.