Buildings need what Henry Ford did to the car. By SnapMeUp - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Now that faster, safer and more efficient construction is more important than ever due to the coronavirus, will the construction industry have no choice but to modernise?

There’s been no shortage of speculation as to why the building and construction industry has been sluggish to disrupt and innovate like other industries in the digital era.

Well before the coronavirus hit, Aurecon Buildings of the Future leader Peter Greaves started investigating the blockages to widespread takeup of modularisation, off-site and industrialised design and construction.

In his research, compiled in the company’s Buildings for the Future report, he found a number of enduring barriers holding the industry back from modernisation. He also discovered the possibility that something, or someone, could trigger change in the industry much like Henry Ford did for mass produced cars.

Greaves imagines a “Henry Ford of buildings” could “productise” buildings and leverage the “burning platform for change” that already exists in the industry. This might not be a single company but an event, like the innovation driven in construction housing estates in the UK and Europe after WWII to cater for thousands of displaced citizens.

The coronavirus is already proving to be an effective catalyst to turbocharge change in the construction industry.

A prefabricated hospital for 1000 patients was built in 10 days in Wuhan, China. In the UK, entertainment centres and public buildings such as the ExCeL exhibition centre have been transformed into Nightingale hospitals in the UK in days rather than months.

Greaves says speed is the main reason authorities have been drawn to modern building techniques such as modular construction.

While governments need to build hospitals as fast as possible, the rest of the construction industry is also looking for ways to save time. With fewer builders onsite due to social distancing restrictions – in some cases less than 50 per cent of workforces – builders and contractors are struggling to meet deadlines.

“Productivity is already at an all-time low and it will probably drop even lower,” Greaves told The Fifth Estate.

Offsite construction will suddenly look attractive to developers and builders wanting to streamline and accelerate project timelines.

On the flip side, the virus will also pose some challenges to modern construction methods with much of these commodified building products imported from Europe or China. But thinking longer term, supply chain issues could trigger a revival of local manufacturing that could set the stage for broader uptake of modern building techniques.

Fertile ground for modernisation

Greaves says the coronavirus has entered a market already becoming more receptive to the benefits of offsite construction “in pockets”.

Engineered timber is one of them. “Timber buildings are in vogue and most of them are ‘kit of parts’ buildings manufactured offsite.”

He says engineered timber buildings produce significantly less waste in an all-encompassing sense of the word.

“Less wasted time, materials, energy, and less harm going to the environment.”

Hybrid construction, which relies on offsite manufacturing for some components, are also gaining traction.

The advantage of hybrid is that builders can rely on modular for repetitive components that nobody expects to be bespoke, such as mechanical and structural pieces, and use traditional building methods for the façade and other visible aspects.

This overcomes common complaints levelled at offsite construction that it limits choice and restricts individuality in building design.

Greaves says timber and hybrid “will take us to the next phase” in construction modernisation.

There’s been some other innovations helping to overcome the barriers holding the construction industry back.

One is creating temporary factories or factory-like conditions on-site to construct a building in an assembly line manner. This solves the issues around the cost of transporting components by taking the “assembly line to the building site”

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  1. If one views urban planning and building through a finance, i.e. future income stream prism, low density suburban models make sense versus high density inner urban models with comprehensive public trandport.

    Known as the ‘Chicago Plan'(?) suburban model rewards fossil, auto and related capital investment exemplified by auto based transport system via (construction and maintenance of) free or toll ways to suburbs in (often state subsidised) single person vehicles to large open plan houses requiring high energy consumption for heating and/or cooling; far higher income streams.

  2. The reward is there. Henry Ford invested in a new production method because he could see the addressable market that was being inefficiently served, particularly by the issue of high costs making products unaffordable for all but the few. The global construction industry is enormous but completely fragmented. A real equivalent to Henry Ford will innovate past the fragmentation, not just in the means and methods. Attacking the opportunity one project at a time makes getting past the fragmentation nearly impossible.

  3. Then, offer a Reward. This old industry isn’t going to change with its old leadership. Offer a reward. A significant one. Imagination will apply.

  4. Thanks for this Poppy,
    Certainly COVID has shown ‘just in time’ production techniques have their drawbacks – potentially factories will change in size as they will no longer be able to rely on ‘outsourced warehouse space on trucks’ to reduce space.
    And from an assurance point of view (contracts) the UK teamed up with Lloyds of London to provide this via BOPAS for built off site construction. We may need that here too?
    Also we have an industry that is only marginally evolving – some prescient discussions from Helix Legal in Qld: