Digital technology unlocking our off-site revolution

Peter Flint

For several years now modular, factory-made construction has been held up as the great hope for solving the housing crisis and moving the construction industry into a new more productive age. At last we may have found the catalyst to turn talk into action writes Peter Flint.

The latest generation of digital technology is not just helping to bring efficiencies in time and cost, to construction, it is also offering developers, builders and homeowners a high-quality, better performing home. So what is holding us back from widespread adoption of this new approach?

The design and construction industry can play a major role in delivering positive transformational change in the UK. Here are three things our industry needs to address –

1. Perception

With the prefab houses of the 1950s and 60s part of our design and social history, we all know that the homeowner perception of non-traditional housing construction is unfavourable. However, as recent research carried out by YouGov and Home Group revealed, almost 90% of individuals are unable to actually identify a modern modular home even though 52% of individuals said they would be unlikely to live in one.

But this perception of modular, factory-made housing shouldn’t hold us back. This is our opportunity to ‘relaunch’ these homes with a new identity. Digital technology and the adoption of new sustainable and hybrid materials are transforming the quality, high performance, precision and speed of factory-made housing. And it is these gamechangers that users and homeowners should be aware of.

Parallels are often drawn between modular housing and the car industry. Car buyers can select the details they want – the finishes, technology and user comfort and safety, which all fit a standard chassis. When it comes to modular homes, we can learn from this and engage with our users in the tangible benefits: identifying the potential of customisable design solutions, proving the opportunity lower running costs, and handing over user manuals which enable users to engage and be proud of what their homes can do for them.

If we give users and homeowners these tools, perceptions will change and the demand for factory-made housing will be like never before.

But a word of warning – as with the car industry, quality has to be king.

2. Procurement

Within our grasp, as the construction industry, is our supply chain: how we engage, evolve and manage this together to accelerate the reality of factory-made housing, at scale.

According to AECOM’s Future of Infrastructure Report – a research project where over 500 infrastructure leaders from across the UK, Europe, US and Asia Pacific were interviewed – 72% of respondents felt that most projects were a long way from achieving seamless integration of providers.

At AECOM we are changing our business to address this brake on progress, from deploying digital tools to enhance the design, programming and delivery process, as well at detecting pitfalls and barriers to success. But we are also changing our business models – bringing people from the industrial and high technology sectors to influence how we deliver – including process and automation engineering and LEAN construction – and using digital modelling programmes to integrate materials specifications and performance measurements, to make seamless integration from drawing board to site, a thing of today not a target for tomorrow.

Our willingness to collaborate and learn from each other is vital.

3. Pipeline

Finally, with the ambitious national housing targets, government policy advocating modern methods of construction and a skills shortage in construction, the stars are aligned, in the UK, clearing a path for modular, factory-made housing to come to market.

And there is room for a variety of solutions, however, the process and production of manufactured housing, in its very nature, needs a pipeline. So how do we generate the demand and supply?

This, again, is within our grasp: if we work together to change the perception, share knowledge and expertise to deliver a seamless supply chain and procurement then, ultimately, factory-made housing will come to market faster, providing better and smarter living and communities.

This is in our hands: the transformation of the construction industry is ours to make.

Read more about AECOM’s modular housing expertise

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