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It’s common knowledge that the UK is currently in the midst of a housing crisis. Less certain is the way out – beyond simply building more houses. Could offsite manufacturing help?
With this in mind, I recently visited Laing O’Rourke’s offsite manufacturing facility in Steetley, Nottinghamshire. It’s a huge space at 23,000m2 – yet they have plans to build another one next door. This gives more than a hint about the growth and potential of offsite manufacture, although it’s yet to become mainstream.
The Government has put £22m towards Laing O’Rourke’s new factory so clearly sees offsite manufacture as a solution.
The Construction Industry Council’s Offsite Housing Review from February 2013 agrees, and found there is a massive opportunity to use it to deliver the new homes we badly need. The report identified potential benefits in a number of areas:
The Laing O’Rourke factory’s bread and butter output is precast wall panels and modules. It also produces more bespoke items and a selection of outer wall finishings to fit a variety of architects’ demands, including a very convincing heritage brickwork effect. One impressive feature is the twin curing ovens (nicknamed the “pizza ovens”) that can get precast concrete slabs from pour to the back of a lorry within six hours.
On site there is a prototype two-storey, four-bedroom family home, made entirely from factory-manufactured components. Everyone on my tour agreed that this was by far the best offsite-manufactured home they’d seen. However, further sustainability and cost research is needed, and the results shared widely, before we can draw real conclusions.
Despite the many benefits, offsite manufacture has yet to become mainstream within infrastructure.
Good examples do exist, such as Laing O’Rourke’s DfMA (Design for Manufacture & Assembly) contracts to construct circular settlement tanks for sewage and water treatment plants. Laing O’Rourke will also be involved (subject to Final Investment Decision) in two aspects of the Hinkley Point C project:
There are potentially huge gains to be made through using offsite manufacturing on nuclear sites. Working on the site itself can create delays (e.g. waiting on security clearance for workers, or lorry deliveries) and problems can arise from limited access and space.
Offsite manufacture delivers better uniformity in finish, plus testing and validation of product quality is easier in a factory. It remains to be seen to what extent a large, unique civil engineering project can be offsited, with the right motivated contractor in charge.
The blockers for offsite manufacture seem to include a high initial threshold to entry (factories costing £100m are a substantial outlay, and need regular feeding to make economically feasible) and the extra time spent at the front-end design stage – i.e. working out how and where to amend the construction plan to accommodate this new method of construction.
This latter issue has the added complication that this interaction is already in flux, due to BIM Level 2, various procurement limitations and very little agreement as to who should do what, even in an “industry norm” style contract. A deadline-driven client might not be willing to accept all of this and so the offsite solution could be neglected out of hand, unless the benefits are clearly stated.
Could it be that housing, often so traditional in mindset, is actually ahead of the curve – and could teach the infrastructure world how to embrace offsite manufacturing?
The ICE will be holding a site visit of the Laing O’Rourke factory on 15 September, followed by a debate to elucidate the uses and limitations of offsite manufacture in infrastructure.
Visit our event page to find out more: watch the debate video and read the insights from the debate.