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Why the construction skills sector must constantly keep pace with pioneering techniques

A blog by Graham Hasting-Evans, Managing Director, NOCN

As president of BACH (the British Association of Construction Heads), I recently attended its annual conference (17th – 19th March) with other member delegates, who are heads of construction at FE colleges nationwide.

This year’s theme was The future of construction training to meet employers’ requirements and house building targets – and among many fascinating subjects discussed were; the next steps in Home Building Skills Partnership frameworks; the CITB Brickwork Intervention Project; an update on Apprenticeship Standards; the role of LEPs in meeting their areas’ housing and construction skills needs; and OFSTED inspections.

One topic particularly stood out for me as an example of a) how dynamic and rapidly changing the construction sector is; b) the need for forward thinking and planning to keep pace; and c) how tomorrow’s bright young minds must be attracted to and skilled up for a career there: offsite manufacturing (OM).

It doesn’t take an industry professional to know that there is a chronic shortage of acceptable-standard housing stock. Meanwhile, there is also a pressing need for every heavy industry to slash waste, lift efficiencies and reduce carbon footprints.

If the construction sector were able to address these issues it could bring about massive societal and commercial dividends – putting people in homes, driving up productivity, slashing costs and making for a cleaner environment.

OM ticks all the boxes – which is why the production method’s popularity is rising in the UK and why speakers at the BACH conference talked at length about the inspiring and exciting technique, which showcases the industry’s innovation.

The speedy, high-quality, cost-effective OM sees entire buildings pre-manufactured in factory conditions.

They are produced in a series of ‘modules’, which are transported to site, then assembled and stacked, rather than ‘built’. With drainage and foundations laid, the entire building can be lowered into place in a series of load-bearing ‘building blocks’.

They are usually pre-clad and include windows, with kitchens, bathrooms and even furniture pre-installed at the production centre. Internal and external finishes can be applied in the factory, where plasterwork may also be rendered.

And with sophisticated Building Information Modelling (BIM) design software, architects and civil engineers are excited by the endless creative opportunities the modular method presents - bringing into being unique, vibrant, attractive living and working spaces.

The modular approach also allows major problems to be pre-empted and resolved before they occur, slashing the major materials wastage, heavy penalties and lost time of mid-project delays that account for 70% of all redesigns.

Another major benefit of offsite construction is its fantastic environmental performance. Lean production techniques cut waste further and allow the use of 100% recycled and/or responsibly-sourced materials.

Being precision-manufactured, buildings are entirely draught-proof for reduced carbon emissions in heating (not to mention lower fuel bills for residents). In addition, they demonstrate top-notch insulation performance, with only inert materials used so that no ozone-damaging elements are released.

The intelligent manufacturing is energy efficient and it has been estimated that only a third of the power is needed to put up a modular building than a traditional, onsite construction.

In addition, the builds require just 10% of the transports to and from site of the traditional; method - with far fewer materials/parts deliveries and a massively reduced need for people to travel there - both in planning and assembly. This lessens impacts on surrounding communities hugely before and during the build – with much lower levels of dust, disruption, noise and traffic.

Apart from simply doing the right thing, sound green credentials save money and yield further financial advantages, in the form of soft loans, grants and other subsidies, as well as enormous reputational value.

In our recent Productivity report, we predicted that offsite manufacturing techniques will not only fundamentally change the way buildings and infrastructure assets are constructed, but how they are planned, commissioned and designed. We observed that Northern Europe has been using these methods successfully for more than 40 years and that the UK needs to adopt the approaches too.

With £44bn earmarked for investment in housing over the next decade, OM represents an opportunity to get the most for every pound spent.

So, with it set to become a major driver in solving the housing crisis and breath new life into architectural innovation and environmental best practice, offsite manufacturing is key to UK construction’s future. It follows that it is also key to those who train and assess its future workforce.

And, as you’d expect of one of the UK’s biggest sector awarding and assessment organisations for construction - building a better future for the industry and everyone who works within it - NOCN is rising to meet the new challenge.

Among the exciting projects we’re getting involved in, in this area is our partnership with WorldSkills UK (who came to us seeking ways to increase construction productivity) on its Productivity Lab.

Sponsored by NOCN, this will bring together a group of high-level employers and FE providers. They include Dudley College - an early advocate of OM upskilling, which offers highly innovative future-facing construction courses and who spoke passionately at the conference – and major companies, such as fellow delegate, Laing O’Rourke.

WorldSkills UK boosts the technical capabilities, mindsets and employability of apprenticeships and other learners through vibrant, relevant skills competitions.

The ‘Lab’ will host a planning workshop in July and then offer construction sector leaders the chance to attend the global WordSkills competition, in Kazan, Russia, in August. Here, a series of tours, workshops and discussions will give them insight to how highly innovative economies, such as Japan and Korea, are approaching upskilling for offsite manufacturing and let them share best practice with employers worldwide.

All learnings will be presented and discussed in London, at a half day debrief event on 3rd October, which will help leaders formulate a dynamic action plan to help them tackle some of OM’s key skills challenges. You can learn more about Skills Lab in an upcoming blog.

Look out for details of further exciting partnerships and our own projects over the coming months.

The whole thrust of apprenticeship and learning provision is anticipating and preparing for the future. Nowhere is this better hallmarked currently than the process of gearing up to capitalise on the opportunities presented by OM.