An Insight into Offsite construction

In this article, we discuss the current shift taking place in residential construction from onsite construction towards factory construction or 'offsite construction'. 

In the UK, we are fast reaching a tipping point where residential construction is shifting from onsite into factories. This trend is set to accelerate as the demand for housing increases inexorably and the shortage of skilled construction workers becomes ever more acute.

Given the challenges that this sector has faced in the past, in the article below we will look at how UK market conditions are changing to make offsite construction a real solution for the UK housing crisis.

The Political landscape

At the 2015 'Explore Offsite' conference in Birmingham in July, Brandon Lewis, the current Minister for Housing and Planning, challenged the UK construction industry to embrace offsite construction to produce high-quality housing both quickly and efficiently. He also noted that support would be offered to companies that sought to employ ‘advanced housing manufacture’ such as offsite construction. Central Government backed this up by providing a £27m grant to Laing O’Rourke for their new factory to accelerate the use of pre-assembly systems in housebuilding. This will involve building a dedicated housing modular assembly factory capable of delivering 10,000 new homes a year.

Pressures on traditional construction

At the annual CIH Conference (Chartered Institute of Housing Conference), numerous speakers raised the now familiar UK housing shortfall statistics that we need to produce 250,000 houses per year in the UK and currently we are only producing c.130,000 – half the required amount!

Data shows(1) that UK construction companies would be very strained producing 250,000 houses per year. This is compounded by a reduction in the number of people choosing to enter construction trades as a career. These two elements create a skills shortage which is slowing housing construction. 

So why offsite?

Building residential properties onsite has always been challenging. Unpredictable UK weather conditions often complicate developers' ability to deliver their projects on time and cost-effectively.   

Cogent, strategic consultants, recently reported that the UK offsite sector is set to grow from £4b per annum in 2015 to £7b by 2018. This is a 75% increase, making it one of the fastest growing manufacturing sectors in the UK(2).

Laing O’Rourke recently reported that their offsite projects spent 50% less time onsite. This fact alone provides a strong case for factory based construction.

New technologies like Cross Laminated Timber and CAD/CAM processing are helping facilitate the scale and capacity of housing production.

As promoted in the Egan report (The government Construction Task Force report), factory construction methods adapted from the car industry would allow more time for quality checks and detailed work without threat of weather disruption.

Once a volumetric scheme is fully designed, tested and in production, significant cost savings will be generated by efficiencies of scale.

Given the dramatic increase in house prices, we are reaching a point where the upfront costs for an offsite solution can be offset by profit and commercial gain from reduced time on site. 

How are we at Chapman Taylor responding to this challenge?

We have conducted a lot of research into this area and have created a number of offsite-friendly designs - many of which are currently live projects. These projects include our Umbrellahaus project.

(1) People and money: fundamental to unlocking the housing crisis – EC Harris.
(2) A modern history of offsite manufacturing - Cogent Strategic Consultants.

About the Author

Michael Swiszczowski (BA(Hons), MArch, ADPPA, ARB, RIBA)

Associate Director, Manchester

Michael joined Chapman Taylor in 2016 to strengthen the practice’s residential expertise. A key member of the Manchester studio’s management team, Michael has a business development remit for the residential sector across the UK business.

He has experience working on award winning residential projects with a particular focus on build-to-rent, student accommodation and modular construction.

He is an RIBA-elected member of the Regional Council for RIBA North West.

Areas of expertise:

Residential / Build-to-Rent / Student Accommodation / Hotels

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