The 2016 review 'Modernise or Die' provided a damning insight into the state of the UK construction sector and its structural issues, principally a growing shortage of labour that threatened it with ruin.
Nick Peters visited him at CAST’s Hatton Garden offices in London to discuss how manufacturing is disrupting the sector.
Mark Farmer: We’re entering a phase in construction where productivity’s going to make or break the industry.
If we’re going to deliver the new homes that the UK needs, the essential physical infrastructure that the government wants and all the commercial construction that the real estate industry requires – and we do not have enough people – then the only way we’re going to do that is by getting more productive.
It is fair to say construction has received a lot of bad publicity around the shocking quality of the houses housebuilders put up.
As a result of that negative publicity, consumerism is starting to push volume housebuilders towards a new way of delivering. It’s not necessarily because they want to, it’s because they have to, to protect their brand.
And that’s blurring the boundaries between manufacturing and construction. We’re going to see what I would term hybrid manufacturing.
We’ll never do what the automotive sector does – delivering a car off a production line into a show room – because by definition, our final point of delivery is to a site somewhere in the UK.
But on that journey to that final built asset, there’s so much that can be done in controlled environments using the manufacturing processes, creating a consistent approach to design, engaging with the supply chain, and physically manufacturing component parts of buildings.
You get a double benefit of high productivity, which should cost less. There’s less labour being applied, less material waste, and that should drive costs in the right direction. And you have consistent quality as well.
Lots of the thinking is evolving around things like APQP (Advanced Product Quality Planning), which many people in manufacturing will be aware of, and which ensures products are being put together in the right way. This is now starting to be talked about in construction and home building.
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The housebuilding market will never be truly disrupted for as long as we continue with the current means of owning land. Do you foresee that changing, and to what extent has it brought about this crisis in the construction industry?
Land is at the heart of so much that is dysfunctional about the UK home building industry.
If you imagine the total cost of the home to a consumer is the cost of land, plus the cost of construction, and a development profit, the proportion of land is now, in many instances, more than 50% of the entire proportion of the value of the home.
In some instances, it’s a lot more than that. Historically, it always used to be a third for the land, a third for the build, a third for the profit. That’s been skewed.
So far, we’ve talked about industrialised construction, manufactured construction, which broadly follows existing methodologies. The houses that come out the other end are going to look pretty much the same as they already do. They’re probably just going to be a lot better built.
Do you see any more disruptive technologies coming along that are going to start rendering those existing methodologies redundant? Challenging them?
I think you are going to see some element of progression in materials, particularly the use of composites, especially graphene composite materials. Driving strength into materials and reducing overall mass and carbon footprint is an important consideration.
Lots of the wastage in construction comes in the materials supply chain; cement and concrete are big, big drivers of carbon within our industry.
Smart technology is a key element of this journey as well. It’s not just about improving materials, but also the increasing use of IoT sensors to manage energy performance and adding automation to the interiors of homes, reflecting how we change as a society and adopt domestic technology.
We are definitely going to see process improvements, led by robotics. I also see artificial intelligence increasingly playing a role in terms of the link between design and manufacturing, especially around optimisation.
The idea of architects just looking at various configurations for sites will gradually disappear because machine learning will automatically optimise a solution for a site. You may even get to a position where the planning system is digitalised.
A digital design could be verified in a planning process, and a machine learning approach can then say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to whoever gets a planning consent.
The planning consent for the site will have a design code that sits alongside, which gives you a pallet of materials that can be used, and a set of rules around the combinations of different house types on the streets.
These ideas can be embedded in an algorithm and would set the rules by which the consumer can configure their house.
At the moment, when you buy a new house you’ll be lucky if you’re able to change the worktop in the kitchen. In future, you’ll be able to mass customise. You’ll be able to customise each build as part of a larger development.
All that you have been saying would suggest there will be opportunities for manufacturers to exploit a whole new area of opportunity.
There’s a really important bridge to be built between design and the manufacturing supply chain, especially standardisation in the way we design.
If we can do that for the supply chain then suppliers will be able to consolidate parts of buildings, whether it’s utility cupboards, bathroom parts, or walls that have plumbing and wiring already embedded in them – standardisation will create lots of opportunities for the manufacturing sector to come into construction and make things.
Ultimately, this is about manufacturing, this is about making things. Historically, we’ve relied on builders’ merchants and then we put it all together on site in a very labour-intensive way.
If we learn to design, using techniques that drive standardisation of the basic chassis of buildings – from houses to apartment blocks – then we could put up platforms, much the same as automotive manufacturers do.
Lots of what happens between the engine block and the steering wheel contains commonalities shared among a whole range of different car types. We could do that in home building and construction – we just choose not to.
This is about big step-change in how designers think, because at the moment they are used to working with blank sheets of paper, being given a site, and just being told to go and get a planning consent.
For this revolution to work it needs a different design philosophy, which is bottom up, kits of parts, mass-customisation, wrap it any way you’d like in terms of the facades and the balconies and the glass, but use a common kit of parts, built around a chassis.