Back in 2015, a Chinese construction company erected a 57-storey skyscraper in just 19 days, relying heavily on off-site construction. In early 2016, Legal & General launched a modular housing business aimed at addressing the country’s chronic housing shortage. And not long after, private developer, Pocket Living, started work on Europe’s largest residential modular tower in Wandsworth. It’s not hard to see where our industry is heading.
Modularisation, standard design and offsite construction are not new. For years, companies like ours have been using premanufactured components such as timber frames or doorsets. But with the mainstreaming of 3D printing and digital technologies, the case for offsite construction – from closed panel systems to whole buildings transported to site on the backs of lorries – is becoming harder to ignore.
Our sector faces some tough challenges. Building to time and to budget remains an industry-wide problem, exacerbated by rising costs in building materials, resource scarcity and a persistent skills shortage. With 8% of the UK’s construction workforce and 64% of the UK’s building materials currently from the EU, Brexit is going to make these challenges all the more pressing.
Cutting corners to keep costs down is a dead stupid way of addressing all these challenges. I believe that modern building methods are, if not the whole answer, then a significant part of it. They are quicker, arguably cheaper, and make more efficient use of natural resources and skilled, site-based labour. They have the potential to produce higher quality buildings, greatly reduce defects and waste, and make a real difference around energy performance.
The problem is that, as an industry, we’re hesitant about embracing change. We’re risk-averse because margins are tight. And we still hang on to the old orthodoxy that each project should be seen as unique, which makes it all but impossible to scale up new ideas.
In my opinion, it’s the current state of affairs that’s impossible. A few years ago, a modular home was twice as expensive to build as a traditional one. Now it’s often competitive, especially when factoring in the financial savings of reduced build times. And it’s a particularly attractive approach for those who are not driven by short-term fluctuations in property prices – for example, housing associations and private rental developers.
Willmott Dixon has made a good start in challenging the status quo. Our Sunesis range of pre-designed schools and CODE custody suite solutions demonstrate that high quality products can be delivered to guaranteed timescales and fixed costs. And I’m heartened by our commitment to creating a more innovation-friendly culture, where we encourage calculated risk-taking and learn from mistakes. In recent months, I’ve seen an important move away from a bespoke project approach to a longer-term perspective.
Keeping up momentum on this cultural change is absolutely critical. Because looming over our relatively manageable challenge here in the UK is the more pressing global situation. The population of the world’s urban areas is increasing by 200,000 people per day, all of whom need affordable housing and sustainable infrastructure. The international construction market is forecast to grow by more than 70% by 2025. That’s great news for us, but not if all that growth is delivered in the same old costly, wasteful and unsustainable way. There are huge opportunities for companies able to provide more affordable and sustainable solutions, and this industry is certainly ripe for disruption. So let’s be part of the revolution!