Offsite Construction: A Timely Solution for the Housing Industry

Is offsite construction the perfectly timed solution for the construction industry?

The call for a quick and sustainable solution to the current housingshortage has created an opportunity for offsite construction to become a key building method to meet the demand in the housing industry.

By 2030 we will be looking at a shortage of around two million homes in the UK, if current factors such as population growth remain the same. In order to prevent this and rectify the current shortfalls, modern and innovative methods of construction must be adopted to provide quick, sustainable and energy-efficient homes.

Kingspan Timber Solutions’ Business Unit Director, Ian Loughnane, offers his perspective on the offsite construction in the housing industry: “Back in February 2013 the Offsite Housing Review was published by the Construction Industry Council with the help of research partners from across the sector and Government. The most striking aspect of the investigation was the broad level of agreement amongst experts that the solution to the shortfall in housing stock would require the extensive use of prefabricated building techniques. The timber frame industry can certainly answer that call when it comes, which surely it must. The impetus required will undoubtedly be Government led but it’s not just about the numbers. As a nation we need affordable, well designed and energy efficient homes that address the significant issues of fuel poverty and climate change. This combination of requirements plays to the strengths of timber frame and structural insulated panels (SIPS), which deliver the sustainable solution.

“Energy efficiency doesn’t mean an explosion of high tech, expensive and ultimately obsolete eco-bling. The industry has invested heavily in getting fabric solutions that deliver high performance without the future maintenance costs that non-fabric solutions entail. This approach, synonymous with offsite construction, focuses on the delivery of an airtight building envelope to achieve sustainable and energy efficient new homes, reducing CO2 emissions, energy consumption and associated costs. With Government targets for reducing CO2 emissions fast approaching, the importance of developing energy efficient and low carbon homes is becoming a central concern, particularly to providers of social housing, house-builders and homeowners across the UK.

“In the two years since the publication of this report we have come a long way. Offsite construction technology delivers a predictable performance level, with fewer construction defects or wasted materials. We are able to provide a marked decrease in the build time with a marked increase in the standard of build. This combination of requirements plays to the strengths of timber technology, which offers a lowenergy design as standard.

“The more recent Construction 2025 Strategy sets out a vision for how the industry and Government will work together over the next decade to radically transform the UK construction industry. This strategy sets out some bold joint ambitions for 2025 including a 33 per cent reduction in both the initial cost of construction and the whole-life costs relating to the building, together with a 50 per cent reduction in the overall build time from inception to completion. I believe this will act as a driving force for change and those who adopt offsite construction methods will deliver volume and meet building regulations far easier than those who don’t.

“The construction of a house maximising offsite technology typically takes four to six weeks, which is nearly a quarter of the time taken by traditional methods with an average timescale of around 20 weeks, providing weather conditions permit. Offsite methods reduce the potential impact of bad weather on buildtimes and swift weatherproofing of the structures diminishes delays for follow on trades. This makes offsite construction the most viable option when working to meet the recommended increase from 100,000 homes per annum to 230,000. From a cash flow perspective shortening the cycle from outlay to sale means that ramping up volume can be achieved without the same capital employed as traditional means.

“The compounded problem of lack of delivery of housing stock during the recession is now reversing to a large pipeline of activity where the pressure is building and the tap is about to be opened. Research finds that there are no regulatory barriers to the increased use of offsite methods and it is predicted by industry professionals that at some point there will be a ‘sea-change’ that will see offsite components increasingly being used in place of traditional site-based construction methods.

“House builders have concerns over the declining levels of traditional skills, however as a timber frame manufacturer and supplier, I recognise that new skills are required for offsite construction and gaining the right skills will offer employment opportunities for many.

“Currently the majority of house builders see no commercial reason to build in energy performance beyond meeting Part L of the Building Regulations. Indeed there is always a flurry of plot registrations to avoid the next round of increased Part L performance. Many purchasers have no clue that their new home may be five years out of date as far as energy performance is concerned. The need to bring these matters to the fore is why the BRE developed the customerfacing Housing Quality Mark scheme, which includes energy performance. The sooner the house buying public begins to look at home energy running costs in the same way as car buyers look at MPG the better. Yet to deliver improved levels of thermal performance and associated air tightness is cost effective with offsite construction and offer the potential of commercial benefits to those who wish to promote the advantages to the market. Nevertheless the trajectory of regulation sends a clear message to developers, investors and house builders that the homes of tomorrow must be sustainable.

“It is not just the housing sector that is looking to exploit the benefits of offsite construction to meet current demands. The education sector is also facing a shortage of almost 900,000 school places and the government has pledged an investment of circa £2 billion to refurbish and rebuild 277 schools. The speed and ease that offsite construction provides is crucial to fitting in with the timeline demands that are unique to schools and the academic year. That is why offsite is becoming the choice method of building in the education sector, matching similar requirements to the housing industry.

“The market is definitely showing higher levels of optimism amongst the timber offsite solution suppliers, with more positive signs of investment and an increase in activity levels. According to the findings of a recent survey by the Structural Timber Association, 74 per cent of the UK’s contractors, developers, architects and registered providers revealed they plan to increase specifications of structural timber due to benefits such as thermal, acoustic and sustainability performance, together with speed of build.

“The transition to a lowcarbon economy presents our industry with great opportunities for growth. Environmental considerations will transform how our buildings are constructed, what materials are used and the methods employed. I believe that we are now on the cusp of the predicted ‘sea-change’ and that the time is right for the construction industry to embrace innovative timber technology and offsite techniques to develop better buildings at a rapid rate to enhance lives, minimise the environmental impact and reduce energy costs for occupants for many years to come.”

Kingspan Timber Solutions will be presenting a range of innovative solutions developed to deliver high performance buildings at a series of Explore Offsite events. Explore Offsite will bring together technology leaders to discuss the opportunity present for offsite construction to play a major role in the coming years. These events are aimed at attracting construction professionals and clients together with architects, surveyors, engineers; facilities managers; building product manufacturers and suppliers.

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