Offsite - What is the alternative?
posted: 10th May 2019
2nd May saw a Modular Buildings Conference held by the Salford Professional Development team at the University of Salford where I had been asked to speak on behalf of the Modular & Portable Building Association (MPBA).
Reflecting on the day and thinking about how the Offsite Industry has progressed over the past 10 years gave me pause for thought.
The amount of global news stories that we now see every day about “the tallest modular building” or “the largest project utilising Cross Laminated Timber” or “huge investment in new Offsite manufacturing plant” are all really exciting, so why is it that when my colleague Martin Irvine of Caledonian Modular and I were asked during our Q & A session “what is the one challenge you would instantly eliminate from peoples minds when it comes to making the decision to use Offsite technology in a project?”, we both said “perception”
The general response from the assembled audience seemed to be that there was no longer an issue with perception and I guess that could well be true of a group who had taken their valuable time to learn and discuss how they could benefit from its use but it is a constant thorn in the side of manufacturers and industry bodies like the MPBA.
Pre-fab, there, I said it. How many negative connotations does that term instantly bring to mind?
We can dress it up using whatever language we want: Offsite, off site, off-site (as an industry it might help if we got together and decided how we spell it!), MMC, at the end of the day it is still pre-fab.
John Logie Baird demonstrated a Television in 1926 (go with me on this), and in 2019 we still call it a television but you would be pretty ticked off if what arrived from AO.com was Mr Logie Bairds 1926 version. We want our Televisions these days to include all the latest in technology, movie streaming, internet access etc. However, its’ still a box made in a factory……
Prefabricated technologies used in the construction industry today are cutting edge and the potential benefits are well documented. Over the past 30 years it is the manufacturers who have driven their industry forward despite the challenges placed in front of them.
Now though, it is the challenges coming from within the construction industry that are forcing those involved to look outside the traditional way of doing things for solutions. Government needs to deliver housing quickly. There is a shortage of skilled trades. Sustainability and waste in construction are being closely scrutinised, all matters that Offsite technologies can address.
One of our fellow speakers at the Modular Conference spoke about “the risks” in using Offsite and I couldn’t help think that whilst there was validity in everything said, a lot of the issues raised were relevant to any method of construction, poor design and bad workmanship being the most obvious.
The conference came the day after the first broadcast of a BBC Watchdog report highlighting the failure of two UK house builders to correctly install fire-stopping in a number of new build properties and the results when fire broke out. They reported that the houses were timber framed construction, which put me in mind of the World in Action exposure of poor onsite working practices by a major house builder using timber frame in 1983, an exposure that decimated the industry for 16 years before uptake began again.
In neither of these cases was the technology itself at fault, the problems lay in poor design, workmanship or bad onsite practices.
Undoubtedly Offsite has been gaining traction and I believe that it will continue to do so in the coming years although it is sad that fundamentally this will be out of necessity rather than mass acceptance, at least in the short term.
Will it be a panacea to all the challenges facing the construction industry moving forward?
Of course not but what practical alternative solution do we have than to embrace these technologies and support their growth?