by Jaimie Johnston
When the Latham Report, ‘Constructing the Team’, was published in 1994, Michael Latham noted that ‘There is scope for improvements through greater standardisation of components and design details and more off-site prefabrication’. 24 years later, the wait for those improvements may finally be coming to an end.
The unavoidable truth is that without innovation, we don’t have the resources to accomplish the huge amount of building that the UK needs. There’s £600 billion of government investment in the pipeline, yet our workforce is ageing and short of the skills needed in traditional construction processes.
Some of the sobering statistics are well known. The residual value of a building is little more than half the cost of its construction. Around 30% of building materials and 40% of working hours are wasted. Yet profit margins are slim, and the unpredictability of the process poses risk for everyone from the customer onwards. The collapse of Carillion shows how real those risks are.
The residual value of a building is little more than half the cost of its construction. Around 30% of building materials are wasted and 40% of working hours
The solution is not squeezing the supply chain – that’s been tried and has not worked. Nor can there be compromise on the performance of the assets, networks and systems. Much-needed efficiencies can only be achieved through a fundamental shift in process, where construction becomes much more like manufacturing, and the use of raw materials is minimised, as is their processing and handling. The components of a construction asset can be delivered to the site at the right time, in the right sequence with the correct information. And once there, they can be assembled by fewer, more easily trained people.
This produces a new way of working (see Figure 2), where integrated solutions use standard components configured using standard processes to give bespoke assets. It contrasts with the traditional model (Figure 1). Here, there’s fragmentation at every level, and clients become distanced from multiple suppliers or installers – the people who are actually delivering what they want.
Looked at in overview like this, the rationale for change is compelling, yet it's a difficult transition to make. Much like the switch to containerisation in transport, widespread benefit requires widespread participation, which won’t happen on its own. That’s why the Government is putting the weight of its construction portfolio and its purchasing power behind the drive for innovation. Five key government organisations will adopt ‘a presumption in favour of offsite construction’ by 2019. And in the Autumn Budget, there was support for innovation and skills in the sector.
The Autumn Statement was preceded by two books by Bryden Wood and the University of Cambridge Centre for Digital Built Britain. The first, ‘Delivery Platforms for Government Assets - Creating a marketplace for manufactured spaces’, set out a strategy for implementing the Government’s vision on construction. It drew on work for the Ministry of Justice and the Education and Skills Funding Agency to develop an evidence-based design process and manufacture-led construction approach. A second book, ‘Data Driven Infrastructure - From digital tools to manufactured components’, outlined a standardised approach across a range of horizontal infrastructure projects, illustrated with initiatives by clients such as Highways England and Crossrail.
The idea of platforms was first introduced in Book 1. They are sets of components that interact in well-defined ways to allow a range of products and services to be produced. In construction, the physical dimensions of a space – particularly its clear height and span, building height, level of complexity and repeatability – will determine the platform that it can be built on. Many different kinds of space can be built on a single platform, and the entire government estate on potentially just three.
Five key government organisations will adopt a ‘presumption in favour of offsite construction’ by 2019. And in the Autumn Budget there was support for innovation and skills in the sector
Defining the ‘boundaries’ of platforms requires a rigorous analytical approach. The more specific a platform is to a particular use, the more highly it can be targeted to deliver efficiency benefits. However, if a platform is too specific then it may be constrained by the size of the market that it can serve and fail due to inadequate volume. Each platform therefore requires enough application to build sustainable volume, while limiting complexity enough to deliver efficiency.
Uniclass provides the classification ‘golden thread’ that allows this analysis to be undertaken in a consistent way, from the highest level (complexes and entities) to the most detailed (systems and products), and also allows spaces to be analysed by use (activities). Given that the design of platforms must consider their means of manufacture and installation, the ‘Construction aids’ table in Uniclass crucially allows this classification to be applied to the assembly stage.
The images here show a visualization of the activities/complexes/entities/ spaces tables, and the elements/systems/products tables.
This level of reductionism and abstraction is analogous to the emergence of the phonetic alphabet. Early, first order alphabets, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, needed large numbers of symbols because each had a ‘one-to-one’ relationship with the object that it conveyed. This made written language rather imprecise, and the communication of abstract ideas almost impossible. Later, second order alphabets used phonetic representation, vastly reducing the characters needed, yet communicating much more accurately. In the same way, a limited ‘alphabet’ of manufacturing processes is beginning to emerge for different construction platforms.
Neutral on asset type and material, they subordinate materials and components to the needs of the asset and its users.
These ideas are developed in a new, third book: ‘Platforms: Bridging the gap between construction and manufacturing’, which sets out the benefits to construction of the kind of platform-based approach, which is common in manufacturing and software.
For example, a car engine, working on a platform – the chassis – to produce a vehicle. Another example is an iPhone, acting as a platform for apps, such as Uber, and the services that they deliver.
In construction, pretty much all buildings relate to the human form. This means that dimensions such as ceiling heights or distance from a window fall within predictable ranges, which can be used to define a small number of platforms that can accommodate a huge range of needs, from a bedroom to a sports hall.
Within those platforms, connections and interfaces can be standardised so that just a few designs meet a huge range of needs, and many components are repeatable. In projects for the Ministry of Justice, it’s possible to construct almost all of the complex estate by using a combination of those three platforms.
It’s easy to see why government supports this approach. It allows high-quality, effective assets to be efficiently produced at lower cost. Far fewer components are needed, and those that are can be produced in much higher volumes, creating a consistent pipeline with economies of scale, as well as more dependable and timely supply. To draw a parallel, it was when Apple opened the iPhone platform to third party developers that use and revenue rocketed.
Bryden Wood are making all the IP generated on their public sector projects available to the Government to ensure that the platforms we are developing can be used as widely as possible. The intention is to create a network effect, lowering the barrier to entry, contributing to wider participation and generating greater efficiency for everyone. Platforms can give construction its ‘Uber moment’, the kind of fundamental, positive shift that we've seen in so many other industries over the last 20 years.
This article originally appeared in the 2018 NBS National BIM Report, which you can download here.
The books are all free to download from the Bryden Wood website.