The Construction Sector Deal agreed in 2018 is an ambitious plan to build a partnership between the construction industry and its biggest customer, the government.
The deal is that government will ‘transform’ the sector through ‘innovative technologies and a highly skilled workforce.”
But you don’t get something for nothing. In return for this transformation, government expects some significant paybacks. It is looking for better outcomes on public sector projects:
* Better-performing buildings that are built more quickly and at lower cost
* Lower energy use and cheaper bills from homes and workplaces
* Better jobs, including an increase to 25,000 apprenticeships a year by 2020.
A skills shortage and increased technology look set to force change onto the industry, whether it likes it or not.
We’ve been here before
That’s not the full list of demands, but these three alone seem almost insurmountable from where we stand today.
Anyone who has worked in and around the construction sector for a decade or so knows this isn’t the first time the word ‘change’ (or a synonym like ‘transformation’) has been bandied around.
Egan, Latham and more recently Farmer have all said we have to change or perish in one way or another.
What’s different this time?
The ‘B’ word
There are two factors which time has brought to the sector. The first is Brexit (sorry to bring it up).
The UK construction industry has benefited enormously from freedom of movement. The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) has pointed to the importance of EU tradespeople to the industry.
More than 165,000 EU citizens work in the UK construction industry.
The current proposed ‘skilled worker status’ also seems too high for the majority of skilled constructions workers the industry needs – leaving a potentially large staffing gap.
The other dynamic impacting on the sector now is technology. It has inevitably moved on since those earlier calls for change and is offering greater potential for evolution in construction.
For example, CIBSE established a Society of Digital Engineering at the end of 2017, reflecting the growing importance of digital technology to the industry, including building information modelling (BIM).
The combination of a skills shortage and increasing use of technology look set to force change onto the industry, whether it likes it or not.
One key way that the government wants to solve the problem of falling skills on-site is to use the new technologies that are enhancing opportunities for use of modular off-site construction – it’s a methodology that seems to promise a number of benefits.
In July 2018 the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee published a report ‘Off-site manufacture for construction: Building for change’.
The document highlights many of the problems facing the UK construction industry today, and points to numerous ways in which off-site can mitigate them. These include:
* Fewer labourers and increased productivity
* Creation of more regional jobs away from large conurbations
* Lower cost of building
* Improved sustainability of buildings and infrastructure
* Better quality buildings and infrastructure.
New skills, new opportunities
The government recognises that new skills will be needed for this ‘modular’ construction industry.
Factory-constructed buildings require new design techniques and allow for the application of the latest production technologies including robotics.
The theory is that this is more likely to attract new people to the industry (which has laboured under an old-fashioned image for many years) – and to help diversify the workforce by bringing more women to the industry too.
Gender balance is crucial to meet the skills gap that the sector faces.
A modular approach
In building services of course, we have already seen development of modular kit, manufactured and assembled off-site for delivery.
The pre-assembled kits are plug-and-play, reducing the need for complex installation on site – reducing the likelihood of errors.
Modular chillers, for example, also provide the sort of design flexibility that is increasingly needed in buildings where change of use is almost a constant.
The technology is with us to make off-site work. The modular approach is also familiar in the building services sector.
With falling skills (even leaving Brexit aside, we are an aging industry) new methods will have to be found to ensure buildings keep going up.
However, change also requires a shift in attitudes, and this is something that the House of Lords Committee recognised. The report states:
“Much of the evidence we received painted a picture of a construction sector which is fragmented and lacking in trust. The current business models and the traditional model of financing and cash flow in the construction sector make it difficult to deliver the benefits of off-site manufacture for construction. For the Government’s investment in off-site manufacture to be successful, the Construction Leadership Council must work to provide the sector with the resources and leadership to become better integrated.”