Opinion

Offsite: Bryden Wood’s radical delivery platform

31 August 2018 | By Will Mann

‘Platforms: Bridging the gap between construction + manufacturing’ is a new report from architect Bryden Wood. With the government keen to drive offsite uptake, it sets out a framework for using factory components to deliver construction projects, director and offsite guru Jaimie Johnston explains to Will Mann.

Jaimie Johnston

What is the vision of Platforms?

The “platform” term is used in software and manufacturing where sets of components interact in defined ways to allow products and services to be produced. So, in construction, the vision for “Platforms” is a broad supply chain, creating standardised bits of kit which all fit within a framework, and using their enterprise to shave cost off each of these components.

A simple comparison is smartphone apps. Anyone can create an iPhone app as long as it runs on IOS. Steve Jobs didn’t realise its potential until the app store was opened up to third-party developers and then sales exploded.

Platforms has the same principle. We are making all our intellectual property open source to the government, and to anyone who works on government projects.

Suppliers can say, yes, we can create something using that framework. But they have to use the platform unless they can prove something else has value. BIM will underpin the platform: all the standardised components will sit in the BIM library and designers will be able to pull them into a project model.

Why do you think cost savings are possible?

After analysing building types, we found they cluster into groups –  there are only so many ways you can lay out a two-bed flat, offices are fairly similar – so you end up with very similar product types. This should lead to economies of scale.

Manufacturing is about big numbers, which allows big efficiency savings. Construction hasn’t really understood that yet. Raw steel is £700 a tonne, but when it gets to site, it is £2,500 a tonne because you’ve paid for it to be handled by the fabricator and supply chain. If the raw steel only needed to be punched once then installed, cost could be cut dramatically.

On our work for the Ministry of Justice, where we’ve got 10,000 prison spaces to deliver, you can see how every £1 you save per unit has a massive multiplier effect.

Modular or hybrid offsite systems – what do you favour?

Modular will be part of the solution, but is it what people really want? Our mantra is never compromise on what the end-user wants from the asset. Modular systems have to fit onto the back of a truck so have space constraints.

They are logistically inefficient because you are shipping a big box of air whereas in one shipping container you can fit the components to make 5,000 cu m of building. It can also be over-engineered – it has to be very rigid for transportation and it doesn’t need that rigidity once assembled on site. Also there is huge capital investment in the factory.

Construction has long talked about copying factory processes from the car industry – but we see the site being the factory with sophisticated logistics and just-in-time delivery bringing in components built elsewhere. Mace’s “Jump factory” in Docklands is an example.

Is construction ready for Platforms and offsite generally?

There are gaps to address in terms of quality and training. With Platforms, it’s as if we’re building a car. The CITB needs to teach the industry how to drive.

In this brave new offsite world, two things are likely to happen: main contractors will become manufacturers, or manufacturers start to become contractors. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the likes of Nissan step into that space.

M&E, for instance, is about putting together pipes and wires and people in the Midlands manufacturing supply chain know all about that, but in a different industry – could they step into construction?

Will architects like Platforms?

“Starchitects” will hate this! But you wouldn’t use Platforms to create a banana-shaped building. And there will always be a market for the Hadids and Fosters – clients who want an unusual design.

What are your next steps?

We’ve now published three books – the others are Data Driven Infrastructure and Delivery Platforms for Government Assets – all based on work done for the Education and Schools Funding Agency, Ministry of Justice, Highways England, Crossrail and other clients.

They were all published with the Cambridge Centre for Digital Built Britain, a government grant-funded body. So this gives them kudos. We have made submissions to the House of Lords offsite inquiry and I am also working with Mark Farmer on the proposed Greater London Assembly kitemark scheme.

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