Is prefab the answer?

As the sector faces a severe skills shortage Carl Ghinn asks whether new ways of working, and products that are less labour intensive, could help ease the problems

Arecent House of Lords report has stated that the construction sector needs a “radical overhaul” and will struggle to meet the UK’s need for housing and infrastructure if it does not change. ‘Offsite Manufacture for Construction: Building for Change’ pushes prefabrication and offsite manufacture as the answer, claiming that it can improve productivity in construction by up to 70 per cent and reduce labour demands thereby addressing the immediate workforce shortage challenges. But is it that simple?

There is no doubt that the UK construction industry is currently facing a number of challenges not least of all an eroding workforce, with the Federation of Master Builders stating that of the 15 key trades it monitored, 40 per cent showed a skills shortage. As a result of this many of our clients across all sectors within the industry are feeling the pressures of meeting demand with less staff.

Utilising prefabrication simplifies the installation process as you only need to fit the completed component rather than assembling each part on site, which can require specialist skills or equipment to cut and fix together. As a result, not only does prefabrication reduce the amount of labour needed on a job, but also the time it takes to install. The same principle applies whether you are prefabricating a simple bracket or an entire house.

A knock-on benefit of this is cost-saving. One of the greatest issues construction companies face is strict margins and timeframes, and the slightest delay can be the difference between a loss and profit on a project. As prefabrication requires fewer people and takes less time to complete, it can potentially reduce the risk of a delay and subsequent fines. In addition, as prefabricated components are assembled offsite and delivered ready to install, there are likely to be fewer deliveries required. I actually think that it improves the quality of the components being used as they are being measured and fitted in a controlled environment. This reduces the risk of delays due to faulty or ill-fitting products.

Supplier support
However, it is important to note that offsite construction doesn’t come without its challenges. Often components are larger and heavier as they have been pre-assembled and can be a strain to handle. It can also leave contractors unable to react to unexpected changes during the installation process. If the component is assembled offsite and then a problem arises, the contractor would either have to return it and wait for a replacement or attempt to fix it themselves. This can cause a delay on the project and possibly huge fines for the sub-contractor.

As a key supplier to the sector, we believe we have a role in helping our clients to fulfil demand and complete jobs despite a lack of workers. We provide a variety of services which are designed to save time and labour on site. These include a pre-fabrication service where we part-assemble products at our warehouse before delivering them with free, next day timed deliveries.

So, in conclusion we believe that the government report is right that new ways of working 13and products that are less labour intensive can help and it is up to suppliers like us to support this.

Carl Ghinn is Managing Director at Fixmart, an independent, family-owned business that has been at the forefront of the construction and refurbishment industry since 1977. Its 30 years’ experience of working within the sector, combined with its unrivalled technical expertise, means that the company understands the challenges faced by contractors working on site in London and the South East. Fixmart provides a broad range of construction related products including fixings, containment, pipe support, brackets and ductwork.

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