Return to schools post COVID-19 by HLM Architects

Every major review of the construction industry has in some way recommended a move towards offsite construction – from the kind of partnering essential for innovation in offsite suggested by Latham in back in 1994, capital investment into R+D and innovation by Egan and later Farmer, and the potential for efficiencies of off-site construction described by Sebastian James – specifically for the schools sector – in 2011.

However, very little has changed over this near quarter of a century period. As an advocate of offsite over this period I’ve been disappointed that the transformation I expected in our industry hasn’t materialised. Less than 5% of what we build in the UK utilises offsite methods.

The case for offsite is in my view unequivocal and I don’t have room to repeat here. Rather, I would like to focus on the two major barriers to more widespread use of offsite and how to overcome them. The first is perception. The baby-boomer generation, now in the majority of those responsible for commissioning new buildings, have had bad experiences of temporary classroom accommodation that has long outlived its design life. These people need to understand that temporary buildings are just that. Permanent offsite construction can be designed and manufactured to the highest specification. If a building can be constructed in a cold wet muddy field, it can surely be manufactured better in a clean, dry, safe factory setting.

The second major barrier lies in the capacity of the offsite sector. Modular builders are generally relatively small players in the industry, and except for some notable exceptions like Laing O’Rourke, major contractors have not wholly embraced offsite. There’s a lack of investment in offsite development that conveniently reaffirms the traditional contractor model.

However, the industry is potentially facing a crisis point that will force it to change whether it wants to or not. We have a growing younger population that needs school places and homes. We have an ageing workforce and a loss of traditional skills that will only be exacerbated by Brexit. Traditional construction cannot keep pace. According to Harold and McKinsey Global Project Database only 69% of building projects are being completed on time and only 40% on budget. Those statistics show how broken our current approach is.

So what do we need to do to effect change? To build more, better, faster, and smarter?

Major contractors need to invest in manufacturing capability, either in their own manufacturing capability or through building partnerships with ‘modular’ builders to increase capacity in offsite construction. Government needs to play its part, investing in training, skills, and infrastructure as well as guaranteeing work flow of public spending. As an industry we need to educate and improve the public’s perception of offsite technology and the financial sector needs to underwrite it. Architects and designers need to embrace new technologies, nurture ideas and creativity that is manifest in offsite instead of turning their noses up at it. The logistics of offsite are something we can only solve through collaboration between clients, designers, contractors, and manufacturers. New types of relationships need to be forged in this landscape. I believe that research partnerships between experienced designers and major contractors are pivotal to deliver the innovation and transformation our industry so badly needs.

The impact of BIM in this arena shouldn’t be underestimated. Effective off-site construction needs to be planned and designed from the outset. This is where BIM can play a huge part by enabling manufacturing design decisions to be made much earlier than in a traditional construction process. This is a technical game-changer that will enable offsite to fulfil its clear potential.

Perhaps, finally, we can stop debating the potential benefits of offsite and start counting on them.

This article first appeared in Building Magazine in September 2018.