Sad sign of the times when we go on site to be told "Don't mention the lead" in a case study because of the sensitivity to theft.
An article in the Financial Times suggested that the UK construction industry was approaching its ‘Uber moment’. The reason? The use of offsite production to slash programmes and cost.
For those of us with long memories it’s easy to be cynical. We’ve heard this before. Remember Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s Design for Manufacture competition back in 2005, which asked for solutions to provide better quality homes for a cost of £60,000 each?
But thirteen years on, it’s a different world. Digital design – BIM, if you like – is forcing a change in the way designers and specialists interact, major investors such as Legal & General are putting money into offsite, and central Government has promised to favour offsite on some publicly-funded projects from next year.
Consultant Arcadis reckons the offsite sector could double in size between now and 2020 to £2.8bn a year. However, many of the barriers that have prevented the oft-predicted offsite boom for the last 20 years, still prevail.
One of the biggest hurdles is the size of offsite manufacturing specialists. There are only seven modular fabricators of any size in the UK, with balance sheets that are too small for many clients to risk. They are a potentially weak link in a project’s main supply chain.
In a chicken-and-egg scenario, offsite suppliers can’t get bigger without a good pipeline of projects ahead of them. Only with this can they attract the investment they need to expand.
The Government’s announcement this time last year could help with that. Five departments – Transport, Health, Education, Justice and Defence – will adopt a presumption in favour of offsite construction by 2019 across ‘suitable capital projects where it represents best value for money’.
In the meantime, some housing developers – such as the one that inspired the FT article – are already ploughing ahead with offsite. Experts suggest that more growth in the residential sector could pump-prime the offsite industry so that it can supply other sectors too.
Offsite doesn’t have to mean modular, though. It can also be a systems approach to design and construction, where buildings are bespoke, but designed from a kit of parts.
Either version of offsite will require some serious overhauls to the construction process, from planning through procurement, design and delivery. Current contractual arrangements won’t fit the bill.
The interesting thing is that main contractors won’t be part of the picture. Instead clients will be contracting directly with alliances of suppliers, with an integrator to orchestrate delivery. A main contractor could in theory be an integrator, but it would require new skills and a totally new business model.
Does that constitute an Uber moment? Well, yes, it probably does.
One of us was recently briefed by their teenager on the James Charles situation. (For those of you that don’t know, Charles is a beauty vlogger who haemorrhaged followers after a show of disloyalty to an older mentor). Said teen was one of the millions to unfollow Charles on Instagram.
Typical Generation Z, we might think. Into influencers, integrity. But we’re not so sure it’s about the demographics…
Shortly after this conversation, we got another lesson in social media-driven transparency at an industry event. The CEO of a large company (not a client) was giving an opening speech while behind him ran a rather beautiful yet utopian video demonstrating his firm’s various construction projects
The problem was that this was an extremely well-informed audience. Everybody there knew perfectly well that the perfect project is a rare beast indeed. Some of them had even been to the sites we saw before us on screen, they had seen the challenges and issues first-hand, they had provided solutions and advice. They didn’t appreciate this squeaky-clean version of events.
And so, as the CEO was speaking, a rather less-than-perfect photo of one of the featured sites was circulating on a WhatsApp group, complete with witty caption. The CEO, like James Charles, lost part of his audience as the photo spread between WhatsApp groups.
There are a few morals to this story.
First, know your audience. A bit of gloss is good to attract interest and raise profile among a general audience, but don’t expect it to impress those at the sharp end. Second, marketeers can’t invent a brand that doesn’t fit reality because, with the magic of social media, the truth will find you out. And third, it’s not just Generation Z that cares about truth and honesty too – it’s just that us older generations are now also making the most of our social media tools.
We love projects like this one. These 100-year-old bricks have just been laid for the second time in their lives in a great project that combines a heritage building with new-build. These projects require more capital investment, yet by restoring and reviving old buildings, how much more value do they – and we – add to communities and urban environments?
Although one might foolishly be tempted to take some tiny crumb of comfort from the fact that the numbers of construction deaths resulting from falls from height has reduced ever-so slightly in the past few years, the latest report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Working at Height still makes for grim reading.
As result, it’s imperative that the sector redoubles its safety training efforts to ensure that all its workers can be confident of coming home in one piece at the end of the day. The onus falls on all of us – in our case, an agency that finds itself on scaffolds and ladders conducting interviews or overseeing photography – to ensure the highest standards are maintained and properly communicated to those at risk.
If you drill into the RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations) numbers, one shocking finding is how disproportionately older workers figure among the casualties. Incredibly, 35% of fatalities are over 60 – including a number of 70-year olds. When you drop the bar to 45+, older workers comprise 64% of the deaths.
At risk of inferring too much from this, it might be thought that we are suffering from a legacy issue – whereby workers came into construction in the days before training, tickets and the higher health and safety consciousness we have today. A 55-year old site worker now, for example, would have entered the industry at a time when even hard hats weren’t commonplace.
So while we shouldn’t take the inculcation of youngsters and apprentices into the best, safest practices for granted, we must be mindful that learning is a lifelong process and place additional emphasis on increasing safety awareness among those already well established in the ranks.
We had our own mea culpa over taking things for granted in this respect when it came to our business insurances renewal. Reading the small print (probably for the first time, to be honest), we noticed that not only we were not covered for work involving scaffolds and ladders – see above – it was specifically excluded.
And then trying to obtain that cover provided a chore as our broker struggled to communicate to insurers why we needed it and they didn’t have a category in which we conveniently sat. Lots of ringing around etc…
Having cracked that - and thus with a heightened (no pun) awareness of the issue - we also recognised that learning should be a lifelong process for the, essentially senior, team: we then set about identifying a suitable training module covering working at height. Why it hadn’t occurred to us before is slightly shaming when, for instance, we all own PPE for just those tasks.
It goes to show that enjoying a safe place of work concerns us all, and we should work together to make sites resemble the ordinary places of work enjoyed by much of the population as a whole; and less like the casualty departments they can be.