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Offsite pipeline frustrates O’Rourke tech director

9 May 2018 | By Neil Gerrard

Laing O’Rourke’s technical director says offsite construction specialists have difficulty convincing clients of the technology’s benefits, and that “there is significant difficulty in seeing a pipeline”.

Dr Sarah Williamson was speaking in front of peers at the latest House of Lords Science and Technology Committee hearing examining the offsite sector.

She praised the few “enlightened” private clients who were starting to see the benefits of offsite construction methods.

“I know from my own organisation we have some success with private clients who can really see the benefit of that certainty in programme,” Williamson said.

“For example, a residential developer who wants to know when they will be getting rental income, they will quickly and clearly see the benefit of having a componentised solution, which they can see built virtually.”

Earlier this year, Laing O’Rourke agreed a five-year housing partnership with developer Stanhope, using its design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) capability.

But Williamson warned: “In other areas it is more difficult to get that traction.”

She said: "In terms of organisations who are providing modular or offsite offerings, there is a significant difficulty in seeing a pipeline. There is significant investment required to develop componentised solutions. Without a visibility and a demand then it takes something to push that investment forward.

“Speaking from my own recent experience, in a regulatory environment there is a massive drive towards safety which there clearly should be, but with a slight twist that could move towards componentisation and modularisation which would give an industry which has traditionally struggled with cost and programme the opportunity to get that programme reliability.”

Williamson, who currently works for the BYLOR joint venture between Laing O’Rourke and Bouygues Travaux Publics at Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, believes offsite construction is still struggling to shrug off its association with post-war pre-fabricated buildings.

“The barriers [to offsite uptake] are to do with a perception issue,” she said. “Rather than seeing the benefits in terms of consistency of product, reliability of programme, reduced reliance on the traditional construction skills, what comes across is an increased upfront cost and perhaps in many areas a quality perception.

“People have in their minds the '60s and '70s builds post the Second World War which are not at all like the componentised offering of offsite construction that we see today.”

Williamson said that was a “huge opportunity” for government to use its buying power to stimulate greater demand for offsite construction but that she also saw an opportunity in planning and development, particularly in housing which she suggested lagged behind.

She added: “We have got two ends of the scale. We have done lots of modularisation for highways sites and HS2, we have got lots of examples of Crossrail projects where the benefits have been clearly seen.

“And at the other end of the scale there are opportunities in the housing market which seems to be doggedly sticking to its guns and brick-building everywhere.

“There have been requirements for developers of affordable houses, so why not drive a bit of innovation and thinking into that part of the market and ask them to consider offsite, quality of design and other criteria?”

Williamson appeared at the Lords inquiry alongside Martin Kelly, strategic business development director at Severfield, David Hurcomb, chief executive of NG Bailey, Andrew Morris, partner at Rogers Stirk Harbour, Jane Richards, director of building structures at WSP and Jaimie Johnston, director at Bryden Wood.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s next oral evidence session on offsite manufacture for construction is due to take place on 15 May.

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