Offsite construction could hold the key to solving the housing crisis but does the sector have the skills and capacity to deliver the homes that are needed to keep up with demand?
By Michelle Gordon
The UK is failing, despite the best efforts of successive governments, to build enough homes but could a renewed focus on offsite construction be the key?
Offsite construction techniques have come a long way since the pre-fabricated buildings of the post-war era and today’s precision engineered factory-built homes are constructed to the highest standards with excellent environmental credentials.
Offsite construction currently accounts for less than 10% of total output but as the housing crisis worsens and Brexit threatens to exacerbate the skills shortage, there is a real opportunity to boost its use.
Mark Farmer’s Modernise or Die report into the construction skills shortage, published last year, recommended a focus on offsite manufacturing and the industrialisation of construction.
“If you buy a new car, you expect it to have been built in a factory to exacting standards, to be delivered on time, to an agreed price and to a predetermined quality,” said Farmer. “This needs to happen more in construction, so that the investors, developers or building owners hiring construction firms increasingly dictate the use of modern methods of delivery and invest appropriately in the skills agenda to grow this part of the industry.
“There are more similarities between manufacturing and construction than many people are led to believe, and this perception needs to change, starting in the housing market.”
There has been an increased Government focus in recent years and more firms are investing in offsite manufacturing methods, such as Swan Housing Association and Legal & General (L&G) Modular Homes, which have both invested in new factories for building modular homes. L&G wants to “do for housing what Henry Ford did for the modern automotive industry” and is building the capacity to produce up to 3,500 homes per year from eight production lines.
Earlier this year Rosie Toogood, former business development director for Rolls Royce’s Civil Aerospace Business, was appointed as CEO of the modular housing business.
Nigel Wilson CEO of Legal and General said: “Almost every other industry has seen radical innovation brought about by digital technology advancements. And yet we continue to build houses the same way that the Victorians did.
“We need more entrants to the sector, new technologies and business models to deliver the 100,000 shortfall of new homes. Just as the car industry was automated, so the UK’s traditional house building sector now needs to step up. We need to build houses faster and more efficiently than ever before. Rosie has a mandate to deliver this.”
L&G has since unveiled its turnkey modular housing prototype for a two-storey, two-bedroom home and expects to deliver its first homes in the first half of 2018.
“Modular construction is set to revolutionise the house building sector bringing new materials along with methods and processes used in industries such as car-making to raise productivity and help to address the UK’s chronic shortfall of new homes,” said Toogood.
“While not a panacea, offsite manufacturing will be critical in bridging the gap between the number of new homes that the traditional construction industry can deliver, and the level of housing need that is anticipated in the next 20 years says a new report from the London Assembly Planning Committee. ‘Designed, sealed, delivered: The contribution of offsite manufactured homes to solving London’s housing crisis’ calls upon Mayor Sadiq Khan to give his support to offsite manufacturing in the capital, which needs a minimum of 50,000 homes a year to keep up with demand.
An “innovative approach to delivering new homes is vital” said Nicky Gavron, chair of the London Assembly Planning Committee but a change of mindset, collaboration between the construction and housing sectors and bold political leadership is needed.
The report’s recommendations include providing clear and strong leadership in raising the awareness of offsite construction’s potential; working towards defining and adopting a Manufactured Housing Design Code, looking at the potential of using TfLowned land to stimulate the offsite manufacturing sector and setting up a dedicated offsite manufacturing-specific procurement framework for London.
“Meeting London’s housebuilding target is a huge task and traditional construction techniques will only take us so far. Offsite manufactured housing is an innovative, forward-looking and exciting way to close the gap,” said the report.
“Modern precision-manufactured homes can offer an increased level of consistency and quality control with additional benefits in terms of speed of delivery, cost efficiencies and safety on site, as well as shallow foundations, lightweight construction and acoustic performance, which lend themselves to constrained sites.
“These buildings are high quality and outstanding in terms of performance,” said the report. “Their construction is more environmentally-friendly than traditional construction methods and they are a far cry from their prefabricated predecessors.
“The lack of a single design standard or mass market demand has held back the sector’s growth. This is a once in a generation opportunity to work collaboratively with investors, developers and policy makers at a time where experts, central and local government are all calling for the same thing to happen. The Mayor is ideally placed to respond to the report’s recommendations and call to action.”
But the sector must be galvanised to fully harness the benefits and one of the biggest setbacks to the growth of offsite construction could be an inadequately trained workforce. A recent research report from the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) says that offsite construction could revolutionise the construction industry and provide a solution to the UK housing shortage if the sector develops the right skills.
‘Faster, Smarter, More Efficient: Building Skills for Offsite Construction’ follows the recommendations set out in the Farmer Review and assesses how the adoption of offsite is changing the skills and training landscape for construction.
“The growth of offsite has seen a blurring of the lines between manufacturing, engineering and construction, creating the need for new skills and redefining existing ones,” it says. “We need to not only train the entrants in a range of new skills but also upskill our existing workforce. The digitalisation of the construction industry and the link that provides to offsite also offers a chance to attract a new cohort of skilled workers.”
In a sector characterised by an ageing and migrant dependent workforce, the skills shortage is sure to worsen as skilled workers retire and Brexit begins to affect the flow of labour coming into the UK.
So how do we ensure that we have a homegrown workforce to drive forward offsite construction and how do we make the sector attractive and accessible to young people? The London Planning Committee believes that an industry-wide move towards offsite manufacturing could make a career in the construction sector more attractive to young people.
“Being able to offer professional careers in a permanent place of work should help the industry to attract a broader pool of talent – especially women and young people,” its report says. The CITB report identifies the different functions required for successful implementation of offsite, what skills are needed, the gaps in training provision and what industry and CITB can do to address these challenges.
“We identified the need to understand the specific changes to skills and new skill requirements at that individual level and really asking that question – to what extent are they new skills and new roles versus tweaking or updating and adapting existing skills and roles? And how does that vary across the different functions involved in an offsite build?” said Ben Lever, future skills strategy manager at CITB.
The findings of the report provide the CITB and industry with the intelligence to establish what is needed and how that stacks up against existing training provision and qualifications, and to act accordingly said Lever. The report outlines six key skills areas related to offsite construction: digital design; estimating/commercial; offsite manufacturing; logistics; site management and integration and onsite placement and assembly.
Workers will increasingly need the skills to move between offsite and onsite environments and so the training for these areas must evolve to meet the changing demand, it says but there are significant barriers including a shortage of qualified training providers and assessors and a lack of awareness of available training and qualifications.
Existing training does not include the required offsite and some companies are delivering their own ‘in-house’ training, which leads to non-standard approaches. In partnership with employers, the CITB will lead a review of National Occupation Standards (NOS) to identify the need for new standards for roles that are core to the CITB scope.
It will also work with the design, engineering and manufacturing sectors to apply the standards developed in these areas to a construction context, to support key offsite functions, as well as working with industry to develop a competency framework for offsite construction, focusing on attitudes and behaviours, to embed in training for all functions.
CITB will help to promote career opportunities in offsite using existing avenues such as Go Construct and will work alongside other bodies, such as the Construction Leadership Council, to drive innovation and create ‘centres of excellence’ for skills and knowledge. Future activity, following the development of standards will include ensuring support is in place for the delivery of training for onsite elements, working with industry to develop new qualification units and standalone knowledge courses and linking new standards and qualifications to the CITB training grants.
As well as supporting the development of bespoke teaching materials for schools, FE and HE; promoting offsite training to encourage the uptake of standardised courses and funding industry experts to deliver training and assessments. It is clear that there is an appetite for offsite manufacturing and great strides are being made in terms of training and changing attitudes but there is still much to be done if factory-built homes are to become the norm.
PHOTO CAPTION – Homes being built at Liverpool Mutual Homes’ development at Belle Vale