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How do we create a significant step-change towards industrialised design and construction?

So, with all these efficient design and construction methods already in practice, what else needs to occur and why isn’t it more widespread?

In the World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting paper on the future of construction, six transformation imperatives are identified as being vital for design and construction companies to future-proof their business in this changing environment:

  1. Recruit new talent and develop required skills
  2. Integrate and collaborate across infrastructure and urban development industry
  3. Embrace advanced technologies at a scale that will have significant impact
  4. Leverage data and digital models
  5. Review product portfolios and identify new opportunities
  6. Enable change and adaptation

This is supported by market research undertaken by Aurecon which identified key themes around the need for flexibility of design and adaptation to be future-ready. These were:

  • Design trumps technology
  • Design partnerships
  • The changing face of building methodology
  • Mass customisation but built to change

The benefits modularisation and industrialised construction

The advantages of modularisation and industrialised construction are well known and documented. In various research reports, including the 2019 McKinsey report Modular construction: From projects to products, these are defined as: 

  • Reduced construction time by 20–50 per cent
  • Potential to reduce costs by 20 per cent
  • Increased safety on site
  • Increased speed to market which can lead to increased revenue potential
  • Ease of construction, particularly in urban and/or congested areas
  • Reduced waiting time in sequencing of construction
  • Reduced wastage
  • Avoids possible delays and quality issues due to weather – the controlled environment of the factory improves precision and certainty. The move to robotics would improve this further.
  • Increased certainty and reduction of rework
  • Improves opportunity to use alternative materials which would otherwise be difficult to transport to site
  • Opportunities for repeatability particularly for buildings that lend themselves to standardisation such as schools and hospitals
  • Increased precision in off-site manufacture can decrease lifecycle operating costs. The McKinsey report quotes one client claiming 25 per cent on energy costs after a move to modular construction.
  • It can be the best option in areas of high cost employment or lack of skilled site labour and high demand
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Modularisation can vary in complexity from 2D elements that require more assembly on-site to 3D (eg. panels) to 3D units that are fully-fitted off-site (eg. fully fitted-out house, including services and finishes). Wood, concrete and steel are used separately or in hybrid.

The less modularised the more design flexibility and ease of transport to site; the more modularised, the more standardisation, repeatability and cost savings.

For example, RAD Urban modular supplier is looking to move 85–90 per cent of labour off-site into factories where productivity is higher and costs are cheaper. This could lead to 20–30 per cent cost savings on mid to high rise office developments. The move to automation is next with a predicted 10x efficiency gain.

While a move towards a manufacturing-style approach to design and construction of buildings is an imperative for sustainable growth, and is already occurring, there is still room for customisation and optimisation, as not all customers of buildings will want a mass produced, component-driven outcome.

Technology is allowing for the transition from an environment where work is a craft and can only be done by ‘professionals’ to a use of standardisation and prescriptive solutions, to systemisation which is a situation where the ‘craft’ work is actually done by technology, and professionals are the gate keeper between the public and the knowledge. This is described by Richard and Daniel Susskind, in their book, The Future of the Professions.

So, with all these benefits, why isn’t modularisation, off-site and industrialised design and construction occurring more broadly across more markets and regions, and at a faster pace?

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