Construction is a trade that goes back thousands of years, starting with Neolithic construction circa 9000 BC, where basic tools were used such as bone, hide, stone, wood, animal fibres and water. Thousands of years later came the Copper and Bronze Ages, bringing with them more advanced tools and materials that enabled improved durability.
Over the years that followed, materials have become more advanced and buildings have changed dramatically in terms of design, materials, methods and scale.
Construction has always been a very labour-driven, hands-on, skilled profession which accounts for a large proportion of employment worldwide. In the UK alone it adds nearly £90 billion to the UK economy each year and employs 2.9 million people.
The first mention of a ‘modular building’ was circa 1160 by Pierre Bouet, a historian who published the book "Hastings" where he spoke of a castle transported in 'kit' form. This method of construction has been around for many years since in various forms and was especially common after World War 2 where it was used as a temporary replacement for housing that had been destroyed by bombs. However, several hundred of these ‘temporary’ residences still stand today having lasted way beyond their expected 10 year lifecycle. Unsurprisingly, many have performance issues.
Today, advances in technology and methods mean this form of construction is no longer used as a ‘quick fix’ but as a permanent solution and a viable alternative to traditional construction. The UK has a current shortfall of 80,000 new homes not being built per annum. Housing Minister Gavin Barwell admitted the government was behind schedule on its goal of building one million new homes in England by 2020. Modular construction is seen as a way to help reduce this and at the same time reduce costs, carbon emissions and reliance on imports.
The reality is, modular construction is a growing market. According to a survey by Buildoffsite.com, it’s likely accounting for around 20% of all construction compared to around 7% of the market in the early 2000s. A recent survey by the NHBC found over 95% of the housing industry agreeing that off-site construction would have either a key role or make some contribution to raising housebuilding output.
There has been notable industry investment such as that made by the China National Building Material Company and Laing O’Rourke. This recent uptake is driven largely by advances in technology with benefits of modular housing that include:
- Manufactured off-site in advance, usually in standard, pre-fabricated sections using a range of different technologies in which a large proportion of the construction is carried out under factory controlled conditions
- Factory controlled conditions means a better quality of build; consistency of finish with fewer defects, waste and damage, orders for factory assembled components won’t be affected by the weather
- The use of templates and jigs in a factory environment will mean greater accuracy and tolerances particularly when used with CAD design systems and automation
- Due to being able to manufacture in bulk, it also brings substantial cost savings and helps with the high demand for new properties as they can be built more quickly in large numbers, with some houses being put up in less than 48 hours
- For the workers it is a warm, controlled and enclosed workplace using production line techniques that significantly reduce the risk of accidents and ill health
- Less noise, dust and local disruption, more environmentally friendly in terms of emissions, waste and ecological impact
- Local employment will always benefit where permanent factory units are established
However, there are some downsides and challenges to consider such as:
- The initial cost of the factory and all the equipment can cost millions
- Anything constructed in the factory must then be transported to the site which can be restricted depending on the limitations of the vehicle capacity, availability, traffic routes and accessibility
- Factories wouldn’t be well-equipped for one-off, bespoke buildings due to the different tooling required.
Skills shortages in construction
Over the next decade it’s projected that 100,000 people will leave the industry every year but only 20,000 will be recruited to replace them. The industry will continue to suffer from severe skill shortages.
Transferring site-based construction activities to a factory environment may help overcome some of the industry’s shortage of skills. Where the factories are built, there will be a surge in employment opportunities for skilled trades in those areas to work in the factories. New skilled jobs and apprenticeship opportunities will be created. The factory environment may be more appealing to new entrants to industry or experienced workers who are looking for an alternative to site based work and the travelling and various working conditions that come with it. Another important point to realise is the opportunity to plug the skills gap with other factory-based engineers and technicians from a range of different industries such as aerospace or automotive where transferrable skills could be applied.
However, there won’t be factories everywhere, so this is only relevant to the people who live within a commutable distance, and ‘traditional’ building sites will remain the norm.
Industrialising construction through adopting offsite manufacturing processes can help to overcome some of the shortfalls the UK is facing in terms of both output and skills. Modular construction creates the opportunity to hire skilled people from other manufacturing industries, using their transferrable skills to plug the skills gap, and streamlining the housebuilding process to make a bigger dent in our new housing needs.
While building houses in a factory will unlikely never be the norm, or at least not for a long time, it is definitely an important tool in the construction armoury which can help to alleviate the pressures that house builders are currently facing and is a welcome addition to industry modernisation.