Offsite... it's just not building really is it?
Rugby's rules were pored over after England's Six Nations match against Italy. Gary Sullivan suggests offsite is similarly testing the rules of construction.
Controversy over the offside rule has long been the preserve of Association Football; there are many quips about who does and doesn’t understand it and football fans ‘enjoy’ nothing better than some banter with the referee over who was or wasn’t offside. But it seems that rugby now wants a share of the debate.
I couldn’t help but think about the construction industry as I watched the Italian tactics bamboozle the English Rugby team in this year’s Six Nations clash (for non-rugby fans the Italians refused to engage with the England players during certain passages of play, leaving them at a loss as to how to continue as they weren’t breaking any rules). I say this as an English rugby fan and as a committed supporter of the UK’s construction industry.
An industry that is about teams made up of people with differing skills and contrasting attributes, all of whom seem to enjoy robust interaction on the field of play, not unlike a rugby team.
So, I find myself as baffled as England players Dylan Hartley and James Haskell when I ponder the rights and wrongs of “offsite”. There are some emotions that I understand, albeit the failed experiments for prefab houses were in the 1950s and 60s. I understand the investment risk in creating factories that are difficult to sustain for an industry whose pipeline is insecure and, of course, we all know that our beloved industry is an exemplar in its resistance to change.
There is a view – something just cannot be said out loud in the 21st century – that “offsite is just not building”. Or, as Eddie Jones, manager of England’s rugby side, commented after the Italy game: “That wasn’t proper rugby.”
So in the year 2000 after a fanfare of enthusiasm from the top house builders such as Wimpey and Westbury, along with housing providers like The Peabody Trust, offsite and modular were to be the panacea for 21st Century construction. Some 17 years on and construction is still struggling to make it work. We have seen fantastic leadership from Ray O’Rourke and yet Laing O’Rourke has not had the success it deserves from its investment.
Legal & General has also invested heavily in offsite as it looks to fill the demand for more housing and as we have seen in recent announcements from Heathrow Airport Ltd, it plans to take a substantial amount of work for Heathrow’s expansion to the other parts of the UK by creating offsite manufacturing plants.
Heathrow, of course, can rightly claim to have been building capacity and capability in this area for some time. Starting small, with air bridges, fixed electrical ground power and baggage in a box as just a few examples.
Perhaps this is the route to success, start slowly, learn, and increase knowledge and skills methodically and with patience before taking on too much too soon. Back to the rugby: Dylan Hartley and his team mates were trying too hard to solve what was actually a small problem without taking time to understand the issue (or the laws).
Too often, construction looks at one element in isolation, without understanding the other consequences. For offsite not to be “offside” it needs to be designed and procured differently, it will need an amended framework that deals with liquidated and ascertained damages (LADs) and other legal issues. However, no manufacturer is just going to sign up for that unless they understand the risk. It has to be less transactional and more integrated, as well as honestly collaborative. There will be no revolution, it has to be evolution — we have all seen the slogans “keep calm and carry on” and I think for now that is good advice.
The construction industry can do offsite any time it chooses to, the question is: does it want to? It has the skills and the intelligence, what it doesn’t have is the patience to build knowledge at a pace it can cope with.
Too often in construction, someone is needed to referee, perhaps it should heed the advice given to Dylan Hartley by match official Romain Poite and seek guidance from a coach on how to deal with a different approach to the same game.
Gary Sullivan OBE is chairman of Wilson James