29 July, 2020

With the vast majority of construction sites now open, all have had to find ways of working with Covid restrictions. This has meant changes to work practices, increased welfare capacity and one way routes operating around sites. Larger sites are now at near pre-Covid levels with smaller ones running at 75-85% of previous levels. Some changes make sense from a distancing perspective. For example, jump or slip forming concrete cores may be constrained by the number of steel fixers allowed on the platform at the same time whereas steel erecting, decking and concreting are all tasks which can carry on as normal because the workforce is more dispersed. Prefabricated risers and ceiling installations are already in use in office developments but to avoid operatives working in confined risers and to improve production levels, more projects will be choosing off-site manufacture.

No one knows how long these changes will need to remain in effect, or how much we’ll need to adapt the way we do things in the long term, but the pandemic has added an additional impetus to the pace of change in the way we design and construct buildings in the UK. So, what could those future changes be and how radically has Covid allowed us to think? 

Compared with other sectors like manufacturing where the introduction of technology has delivered huge efficiencies, construction has always been relatively slow to adapt. It’s now just over a quarter of a century since the influential Latham report which set out recommendations for reform in the industry. We have yet to realise the benefits that could flow from fully embracing all of its ideas. It’s entirely fair to acknowledge the fundamental factors that distinguish building from manufacture. Every project is different, every team is assembled from scratch, the budget, the programme and the brief will be unique in each case, so improvement through iteration is really hard at a systemic level. Whilst Latham and his team focused largely on process improvement and the removal of adversarial behaviours from project team structures, one theme emerged throughout, the value of standardisation. We can learn from that.

Let’s imagine a post-Covid construction project of the future. Wearable tech in the workplace coupled with data collected by the BMS and analysed by intelligent building technology will have created a multidimensional digital model of any new building’s essential functional requirements. Policy objectives like sustainability and wellness goals can be added at this point, together with dynamic factors like assumptions about future expansion or sublet space. The designers all work on the basis that prefabrication and selection from standardised off the shelf components is the default. Software will identify component compatibility and direct designers to make choices influenced by buildability and ease of assembly on site. Departing from this approach risks losing BREEAM points because in the future it will measure and discourage bespoke design where that is costly or unsustainable. We’ll soon be seeing calories on restaurant menus, so could each building component come labelled with its embodied carbon or recycling value so designers could make more informed choices and even work within a maximum limit or each project? Like food miles we’ll reward local sourcing and manufacture, after all, the pandemic, Brexit and trade wars will have taught us the risks of over reliance on long international supply chains and we will have elected to become more self-sufficient.

Meanwhile on site a full laser scan will have been completed to set the basis for a fully integrated BIM model in which components are tagged by manufacturer and called off in the right sequence for fabrication, delivery and assembly on site. Some elements will be 3D printed. Components come marked with their location in the building and once installed signal that the next component can be put in place. Cranes lift large assemblies into place, packing for transit and temporary protection is designed to remain on site and be used for thermal or acoustic insulation to reduce waste. On floor robots work to place curtain walling or ceiling and floor tiles in place. Intelligent BMS technologies handle commissioning automatically, doing their own fault finding and self-testing.

Okay, maybe too ambitious. Construction is always going to need people but perhaps the way we need to think about it should change. Instead of seeing it as a highly complex, one time process that might be capable of some added efficiency if we were able to automate parts of it, we should see it as a fundamentally repetitive manufacturing process, so that design serves manufacturing and not the other way around. This is not at any cost to design flair, distinctiveness or client choice. It’s about promoting efficiency and speed, being more sustainable, reducing costs and improving performance reliability. Those are all goals that deserve some of our attention. If we move at least some way towards this approach because of the pandemic then something positive will have come from it.

And in case you think prefabrication and relying on standard components is somehow new and radical, it’s worth remembering the now iconic Eames House in Southern California. A building which was built as part of a post-war competition, to see if it was possible to design an entire building only using available catalogue components, was completed in 1949.