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Head of CSIC makes case for off-site manufacture for construction in House of Lords debate

last modified Jan 16, 2019 09:59 AM
Professor Lord Robert Mair, a member of the Science and Technology Select Committee which recently undertook an inquiry into the potential of off-site manufacture, contributed to a House of Lords debate about transforming construction. Lord Mair has also written an article published by PoliticsHome stating the case for off-site manufacture technologies.

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Opening the debate, which follows the Science and Technology Committee’s Report ‘Building for Change’, published in July last year, Lord Patel thanked Lord Mair for suggesting the inquiry and summarised key findings. Acknowledging Government’s agreement with many of the Report’s recommendations, and thanking the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Lord Henley for attending, he stated the focus of the debate would highlight aspects “where the Government were less in agreement”. 

Lord Mair’s contribution to the debate expressed the urgent need for transformation in construction: “The UK construction industry contributes more than £100 billion annually to the economy. It is vital to solving some of the pressing problems facing us. There is a lack of affordable housing. We have ageing infrastructure that needs replacing or increasing in capacity. However, the construction industry suffers from poor productivity. New technologies, such as off-site manufacture, could considerably improve the productivity of the construction industry.”

Highlighting the current housing crisis and requirement for 300,000 new homes annually for the foreseeable future, Lord Mair dispelled preconceptions linking off-site manufacturing methods to uniform and poor-standard products saying: “Bringing a manufacturing mindset to the design and construction of infrastructure, especially buildings, offers huge opportunities for harnessing the benefits of standardisation and factory manufacture without hampering architectural ambition.”

While the inquiry revealed a strong case for the use of off-site manufacture for construction there are, said Lord Mair, barriers to widespread adoption, including the fragmentation and lack of collaboration in the construction industry. “This fragmentation makes it difficult for all parties—clients, designers and contractors—to be involved from the beginning of a project. Lack of trust, and therefore a lack of collaboration, and attitudes to risk are cultural within the whole sector. This often leads to disputes which are all too often part and parcel of the construction industry.”

Lord Mair welcomed initiatives, including the Construction Leadership Council and the Infrastructure Client Group’s Project 13, that are working towards establishing a culture of enterprise rather than a transactional approach within the sector to facilitate a more collaborative business model.

“Most importantly, in an enterprise model the key contractors, suppliers, owner, adviser and integrator all work as one team to optimise value. All parties — client, architect, engineering designer and contractors — must be involved from the beginning of a project, rather than, as so often at present, the contractors only being involved at a late stage when the project has already been pre-determined, fixed and ​designed, with all the risk being transferred to the contractors. A key element of a successful enterprise model is risk sharing as opposed to risk transfer.”

Acknowledging the Government and wider public sector as the biggest clients of the construction sector, Lord Mair spoke of their “key role in encouraging and facilitating the uptake of off-site manufacture”.  Drawing attention to the need for increased funding of research and development in the sector, he welcomed the  new £170 million investment in R&D as stated in the construction sector deal and the transforming construction programme that is part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund: “Innovate UK estimates that this government investment will leverage around £250 million of match funding from the industry through its contribution to funding R&D projects.”

One of the Committee’s recommendations is for a portion of the R&D funding to focus on detailed performance data for the lifetime of buildings and infrastructure to provide an evidence base for improving future designs and delivering significant economies. Welcoming the Government’s support for optimising the whole-life performance of buildings and infrastructure, Lord Mair highlighted CSIC’s pioneering work deploying innovative sensor technologies on a number of high-profile engineering projects: “Industry should aim to routinely equip new components manufactured in the factory with fibre-optic and wireless sensors. These will deliver vital digital data on the performance of infrastructure, during construction and throughout its life.​”

While reflecting positively on the Government’s announcement in the Autumn Budget of 2017 of its “presumption in favour” of off-site manufacture by 2019 across five departments responsible for the construction of buildings and infrastructure, including the departments for transport, health, education, defence and the Ministry of Justice, Lord Mair called for the Government to develop and publish a series of key performance indicators against which the success of the presumption in favour can be assessed.

He  drew attention to the Report’s recommendation that, where the presumption in favour is set aside and a project goes ahead that does not use off-site manufacture, the Government should publish a statement explaining why it has not been used and justifying that decision. Describing the response by Government to the recommendation as “lukewarm” Lord Mair asked the Minister to “clarify how the presumption in favour will be given more teeth”.

Lord Henley confirmed Government support for off-site manufacturing and, addressing Lord Mair’s call for explanation when off-site manufacture is not pursued, said:  “…the Government have issued a call for evidence on the implementation of the presumption to use off-site manufacturing, which will enable all stakeholders to contribute to the development of the presumption. Other issues will be considered in the light of the responses that we receive… I hope that the Government have also given sufficient assurances that we wish to be constructive in this. We believe that our commitment to the technologies in this field is one that we can be proud of.”

In conclusion Lord Patel welcomed the Government’s commitment to changing the public sector procurement model to procure for whole-life value rather than up-front costs: “This, together with presumption in favour of off-site manufacture, is an important signal to the industry. The Science and Technology Committee will follow future developments with interest and may well revisit the situation with a follow-up inquiry to track the Government’s record in fulfilling their commitments.”

Read Hansard Off-site Manufacture for Construction (Science and Technology Committee Report), 12 December 2018, Volume 794 here.

Read Professor Lord Mair’s article ‘Off-site manufacture has the potential to transform the construction industry’ in PoliticsHome here.

 

 

 

 

 

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CSIC is an Innovation and Knowledge Centre funded by EPSRC, Innovate UK and industry. We develop cutting edge sensing and data analysis models to provide a powerful platform for delivering data to enable smarter whole-life asset management decisions, for both new infrastructure and existing assets. CSIC collaborates with partner organisations across policy, standards and industry adoption to effect transformative change, deliver benefits to all stakeholders and establish the UK as a global leader in digital construction.