The role that off-site construction will play in shaping the future of the industry is becoming clearer, but we must take a strategic approach to ensure the benefits are fully realised.
In November 2018, the UK government committed to increase the use of off-site construction on public projects. Building on the Construction Sector Deal commitments to improve productivity and adopt more digital technologies, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority set out its preferred approach to develop a 'Platform Approach to Design for Manufacture and Assembly' (P-DfMA), asking for further evidence on the proposal.
DfMA uses digital technology to design standardised components that are manufactured in factory conditions and then transported to site for assembly.
A platform approach embedded across capital programmes means the same components used on a school can also be used in a hospital or railway station, reducing the reliance on unique elements.
The benefits of DfMA are diverse, ranging from lower costs, shorter programme times, higher quality products, improved safety, fewer carbon emissions and less waste.
With so many advantages, particularly when used across repeatable assets, it’s clear to see why government views a P-DfMA approach as the way forward.
What’s also clear is that the industry isn't yet ready.
At a roundtable event held to help inform ICE’s response to the call for evidence, we heard that current approaches to DfMA are often bespoke and short-lived rather than planned across long-term programmes. Additionally, much of the good work being done isn’t shared.
The government’s mandate on BIM Level 2 use shows that the industry can implement major change, and it’s likely that lessons can be learned from that process.
Capacity and resilience must first be built up, allowing the industry and supply chain to invest appropriately and implement the changes required.
Departmental trailblazers can also help the industry to grow and provide a benchmark for improvement.
While there’s work for the industry to do, this is certainly not a one-sided relationship.
Across government departments are a multitude of technical specifications, regulations and restrictions.
The government first needs to rationalise these to enable a consistent and streamlined set of standards and components to be developed that manufacturers, designers, engineers and constructors are happy to work with.
The role of Project 13
In a traditional delivery model, flexibility during the build process means components and more can be changed, or the order they’re installed shifted around while on site.
DfMA is completely different - the building or infrastructure must be assembled in the way it has been designed for.
This requires multiple aspects of a project to be considered, finalised and approved at an earlier stage, meaning a need for different delivery models, new skills and a complete shift in mentality and culture from the industry to implement it.
A model like Project 13 is therefore vital. This would support the proposed P-DfMA approach by providing sufficient scope for productivity and innovation so that suppliers can invest in modern methods of construction, create long-term relationships with closer collaboration, enable integration with advisors and suppliers, and lead to earlier, strategic engagement of the supply chain.
Patience is the key
There’s another ingredient required to ensure the best possible outcome is achieved – patience.
The IPA recognises that its proposed approach requires further research in the first instance, and ICE believes this stance should also extend throughout its implementation.
Such a major change will require investment and take time to fully form – prototypes will need to be developed and iterated, and lessons need to be learned from when things do go as planned.
The system will not be at its most refined immediately, but by bringing in firms and their supply chains early and taking a focused approach, government and industry can move forward together and deliver the benefits that P-DfMA promises.