Jul 14, 2014

Guest Blog – Ian Pannell of Buildoffsite

I’m proud to say that I have now worked in the construction industry for more than 40 years. I’ve worked for some leading companies and have taken on a number of really interesting roles. In support of bringing change to the construction industry, I’ve been involved with a number of organisations. I’ve also been fortunate to have worked with some incredibly gifted people with boundless energy, who have done their part to make what the industry can achieve just that bit better.

For me, three constants apply to this industry of ours. Firstly, a recognition of just how significant the construction industry is to all of us – every single citizen. It’s therefore important to develop a construction industry that is able to work as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Secondly, a recognition of just how good the industry can be in delivering structures of incredible design, complexity and performance – structures that inspire and enthuse and which are sometimes delivered in the most challenging of circumstances.

Thirdly, an admiration for the professionalism and determination of many of those who work in the industry to deliver excellence notwithstanding the technical or project challenges.

The flipside to these points is a recognition that much of the industry has not and does not work efficiently. A recognition that too often structures fail to inspire and deliver the performance that has been specified. Currently, too many projects overrun and, for the most part, levels of productivity are simply dreadful.

As I look forward to where the construction industry will need to be in the immediate future it seems to me that the challenge of poor performance and low levels of productivity and quality need to be challenged. The alternative of simply accepting the status quo and assuming that things can rub along as before misses a fundamental point.

We need to build at an incredible rate and, frankly, governments of whatever colour will have to find the money to make the necessary investments. In turn, it seems to be quite reasonable that government should demand the construction be as efficient as possible.

One of the biggest challenges that we face in the UK is the need to massively increase the number of homes that we deliver. The reasons for the increase in demand are well-known, particularly in our large cities. In turn, this increase in demand will also create a matching demand for new schools, health services and infrastructure that will support new jobs.

The population growth in our major conurbations will inevitably lead to most people having to live in much closer proximity to each other.  What and how we build will need to be capable of meeting all these challenges with minimum disruption and impact on the environment, to an overall cost that is affordable and represents a prudent long term investment.

I have no doubt that the construction industry has the capability to engage with the implications of this growth agenda. I’m also convinced the way that the industry works, the quality of what we build, and the performance of buildings in use will need to be the subject of radical overhaul.

I make no apology for being wholly convinced that part of the solution to achieving a construction industry that is capable of matching the emerging challenges in the UK economy depends on the industry, its clients and professional advisers being prepared to accept the inevitably of supporting a fundamental shift in practice, and favouring the use of offsite construction methods.

Having been in the vanguard of change for almost 30 years and Chairman of Buildoffsite for the last 10 years, I see no merit in any contention that pleads that construction is in some way so special a process that it is wholly dependent on the availability of craft skills, the use of traditional materials, and that any significant expansion of output requires more of both.

Similarly, I don’t accept that the use of factory managed components inhibits the ability of designers to create stunning structures. What I readily accept is that achieving a step-change in quality, in performance, in use, and in the speed of construction will not be achieved simply by fine-tuning traditional construction practices, traditional ways of working and traditional mindsets.

However, the offsite industry needs to work harder to promote the project and commercial benefits available from the use of offsite solutions. It’s rarely the case that offsite construction methods are simply a factory-made alternative to traditional construction. There are usually additional benefits that can impact positively on process efficiency and performance in use, but these need to be proven and then vigorously promoted.

The business and project case for offsite construction methods is now accepted as proven best practice in many sectors of the industry. House-building is one of the last bastions of traditional construction methods and now that market is being challenged by the product solutions from leading edge companies such as Stewart Milne Timber Systems.

I look forward to the time when in the UK it will be entirely normal practice for customers to purchase homes and other buildings in much the same way that we now purchase cars, aircraft and boats. With the sharp edge of competition ensuring that the supply side responds by offering exceptional build quality, value for money, the ability to incorporate customer requirements, and for delivery within weeks rather than months.

Sure, I accept that a lot will need to change before this can happen including, of course, funding and the vexed issue of the ownership of land. At a time of challenge for the industry, I suggest it is also the right time to think through the big ideas – the ideas that would make a real difference to us all and make a lasting difference to the industry itself.

At the same time, we also need a generation of leaders. Leaders who will give the leadership that the industry needs and who will dare to be different. Others will certainly follow.

Homes For Scotland Home Builders Federation National House-Building Council Royal Institute of British Architects Structural Timber Association Constructionline British Board of Agrement Wood Campus Build Off Site Building Research Establishment WOOD FOR GOOD

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