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  • Writer's pictureEvolusion Innovation

Understanding Offsite Construction: Identifying Expertise in Emerging Technologies

Offsite Manufacturing (OSM)

According to recent articles in New Civil Engineer and Infrastructure Intelligence (both published on 13th September 2018) the perceived costs and a lack of experts are hampering offsite construction.

In fact, despite a growing body of evidence supporting increased implementation of offsite construction, over half of the respondents to a survey carried out by global law firm Clyde & Co entitled 'Innovation in Construction Report (OSM)' invested less than 2% of annual revenues in offsite construction over the last five years. According to this report, the main barriers to the uptake of offsite construction or offsite manufacturing (OSM) amongst the industry are capital costs - or perceived costs - and a stark lack of expertise.

Capital Costs

In our previous article Understanding Offsite Construction: The Cost Debate ( we dealt with the many fallacies around the cost of offsite construction. The key point is that:

"Big cost savings come from designing the right product to suit offsite technologies; this means working with the design team at early stages to design for modular rather than just finding the right modular system to suit the design."

Lack of Expertise

We agree that a lack of relevant expertise within industry organisations has caused many to lag behind. This is inevitable given the evolution of the market, the housing crisis across the UK and Ireland, and the unprecedented pace of transformation nationally and globally.

While it is inevitable, it is also particularly worrying given that the UK government has recently committed to adopting a pro-offsite construction approach in future PPP projects and that the Irish government is likely to follow suit, albeit at a slower pace.

As we recently documented in a feature on offsite construction for the Council Journal magazine, from 2002 to 2006 Ireland led the way in offsite technologies. Some of the world leaders in panelised construction and volumetric construction were Irish companies based in Ireland. Companies like Fusion Building Systems were early pioneers in light gauge steel going from 2 storeys to 8 storeys in those days. They exported in excess of €20 million per year to the UK market, supplying student accommodation, apartment buildings and hotel/motel accommodation. Volumetric building was also pioneered in Ireland around 2006 by Vision Modular in Cork. Early developments in Ireland include Belarmine Park in Stepaside, where six blocks of modular buildings were constructed and the Allegro building in Sandyford is another great example.

In fact, back in 2009, Vision Modular built the tallest modular building in the world at that time in Wolverhampton (mentioned above) for student accommodation. That building is a fully volumetric structure of 25 storeys.

Due to the economic downturn, all of these offsite manufacturing companies were exposed to the effects of the financial crisis and Ireland lost much of that manufacturing capacity. Since 2013/2014 we are seeing a re-emergence of companies in Ireland and a number of world-class leaders have emerged in recent years. One such company is Vision Built in Galway - this company manufactures panelised light gauge steel structures and is certified in Ireland and the UK to construct up to 10 storeys in height including the use of concrete floors. The system has been assessed for a minimum design life of 60 years. Modular Homes Ireland in Ballyjamesduff is another new volumetric building system provider who is NSAI certified. The team there are delivering housing at scale and will be providing apartments up to 10 storeys in 2018. There are many other offsite product suppliers who are currently going through the certification process at the moment.

Robert Meakin, one of the report authors and projects & construction partner at Clyde & Co, said:

"OSM has been at the bottom of the UK construction industry's tool box for decades ... Over the last couple of years momentum has been building and with the government now actively encouraging the use of OSM in some of its projects, the tipping point appears to be within reach."

This appears to be an accurate summation given that offsite construction is expected to increase sharply over the next five years. In fact, 61% of respondents indicated their intention to double their investment in and reliance upon offsite construction.

Experience matters

So the second key point here is that experience matters, however, the industry does not appear to know how or where to find this all-important expertise and project experience.

In fact, long before this report issued, our team here at Evolusion Innovation had already identified one of the biggest problems with offsite adoption as being poorly or inadequately-managed projects. The main contractor’s design team needs to be experienced in managing offsite construction projects. For example, any steel frame or timber frame company can erect 10 or 20 houses per week but the developer cannot block and finish out 10 or 20 houses per week so this is entirely misrepresenting the realities of offsite construction and how it needs to work. A good manager will erect 2/3 houses per week as the developer can reasonably finish those out and stay on schedule. This means making sure that trusses are available and windows ordered and delivered. Also, it must be kept in mind that those houses need power and other utilities and these connections are never instant - the only way to achieve all the time and cost benefits is by exemplary management, keeping everything working in sequence. Planning is everything. The importance of having the project managed by a team well experienced in offsite construction is critical. There is a huge amount of learning involved so having a team that has worked on that fast-track process and that understands the details makes all the difference. Things happen differently, everything happens more quickly. The product is much more delicate. For example, the protection of structures during transport and assembly might not be fully understood by a less experienced team.

Perhaps the report is correct and we have indeed reached the tipping point for offsite construction.

About Evolusion Innovation: The team at Evolusion Innovation have been involved in over €2 billion worth of offsite construction projects across Ireland, the UK and Europe over the past 15 years.

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