FERGUS MERRIMAN asks if new offsite building technologies could hold the key to solving the housing crisis?

The housing crisis continues, yet the agencies of Government and commerce continue to rely upon failed, outmoded or even anecdotal methodologies to procure a so-called ‘rapid solution’, while largely ignoring the legislative, productive and technical changes that have come about in recent years.
The offsite sector was in its infancy in Ireland when the recession struck, effectively stalling progress in its tracks. While we slumbered, a future in which robots manufacture complete building elements using modern methods of construction (MMC) has come to maturity elsewhere, with huge investment in industrialised production facilities across Europe and the UK.

The potential
So what does this move to MMC potentially involve? In a nutshell: finely designed and carefully selected elements of a building, moving along robot-controlled production assembly lines, in warm dry conditions, with regular quality checks, before being transported to site to form finished constructions in days rather than months.
Such a vision of factory-manufactured buildings is not new and for some has a troubled past, not just the Ballymun flats or school prefabs, but as far back as the Titanic. Today we understand the building physics involved far better, and we now have the advantages of computers, 3D and thermal modelling, building information modelling (BIM) and CAD/CAM, all of which can ensure that failures are avoided and economies of strength and quality are garnered at the best possible cost certainty, with maximum sustainability and minimal waste.

Challenges and advantages
Moving the construction process from a weather-dependent and fragmented construction site to a safe and predictable modern factory environment is a major challenge, not just in terms of understanding procurement of an offsite supply chain, but in how we go about optimising design for manufacture and assembly at project inception. Within a well-organised manufacturing environment the production process is broken down into simplified, discrete and documented activities with clear, practiced instructions. In the factory it is feasible to train and perfect each operative to undertake specific, designated activities where practice can really make perfect. After all, you would not expect the Ford company to arrive with several kits of parts and several hundred operatives to construct your new car in your wet, cold driveway and anticipate perfect results!
In the more advanced factories, robot manufacture of complete building elements is a reality, where the human interface is limited to material input and product take-off. Indeed, machines such as those produced by Howick and others already translate CAD designs directly to output high-grade, dimensionally-stable, light-gauge steel elements, complete with all the punching and swages, ready to be clipped together to form high-strength, durable floors, walls and roofs.
Such a brave new world is appealing, but for those of us at the coalface of construction, the decision to enable the end of all the things that routinely conspire to waste time and materials, or upset the flow and quality of work, has been denied to us by the agencies of procurement, who largely seem unaware of the reality on offer or being delivered elsewhere.

Getting the most from MMC
To optimise the benefits of industrialised technology, and to provide robust economic and sustainable solutions, requires a number of key features to be in place, starting with the design and construction teams, who should be experienced or educated in the adoption of offsite techniques at an early stage. Tendering and procurement teams must have an understanding of how the entire process works, or an appreciation of the need to bring specialist manufacturers into the teams at the earliest possible stage. This will ensure from the outset that the flexibility, scope and capability of offsite systems are availed of fully to lead to success.
It will take strong commitment and direction from Government, and other major customers such as local authorities and the Housing Agency, to understand the benefits of design, scale, timeframe and quality that are available so as to give the sector the confidence it needs to invest in the manner and volume already seen abroad to help solve our crisis.

Fergus Merriman

Chartered Building Surveyor, Merriman Surveyors