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The construction industry is core to the economy. Yet there is a growing gap between the number of essential projects to be delivered and the skills and capacity the industry has to deliver them. The construction sector also operates on thin margins in an environment that is high risk in terms of cost, time and above all, human safety.
As Balfour Beatty outlines in its thought piece: 25% by 2025: Streamlined construction – seven steps to offsite and modular building, meeting these challenges calls for the mainstreaming of a new generation of industrialised construction methods, including offsite and modular building. These approaches drive better outcomes for all stakeholders: for customers, speeding up construction and reducing waste; for the construction supply chain, by improving quality and repeatability of infrastructure. And, if we invest now, industrialised construction could also create thousands of jobs.
Currently, the lack of capacity in Ireland and the UK means that prefabrication and modular approaches rely on imports from as far away as China. Moving towards local manufacture instead could boost domestic economies. Ireland, for example, has a proud history of investment in innovation, and leads in the use of innovative technologies, from BIM, to offsite and digital construction. It is in a strong position to capitalise on the increasing use of offsite and other industrialised construction techniques, and to seize opportunities for growth and increased exports.
Balfour Beatty has been using these techniques in many of its schemes. On the landmark Irish Primary Care Centres PPP project, which Balfour Beatty Investments delivered in consortium with InfraRed Capital Partners Limited, considerable efforts were made to standardise electrical services designs across individual centres, providing consistency to the end users. In County Antrim, on Balfour Beatty’s Gobbins Coastal path project, digital drone technology was used to review existing cliff faces which required scaling, saving time while delivering a detailed, accurate assessment.
The time has come to address the barriers to the widespread adoption of industrialised construction. From the reluctance of procurers to use it and the lack of capacity in the market to produce it, we must move beyond traditional mind-sets. More must be done to educate and inform, both to demonstrate the benefits of offsite and modular building, and also to improve understanding about how to maximize its benefits, such as the need to aggregate schemes over a longer-timeframe rather than dealing with each scheme individually; the importance of building in repeatability; and the need for a more collaborative approach in commissioning infrastructure.
Providers, too, must think about change. While Balfour Beatty has committed to reducing the work we undertake onsite by 25% by 2025 and others are following suit, some remain reluctant. They are held back by the significant upfront investment needed and the limited profitability while the market remains narrow. This is why governments can make the difference. As the industry’s largest client, they have the means, motivation and responsibility to throw their weight fully behind this agenda to release substantial productivity and job creation.
Alan Garvin, Managing Director, Balfour Beatty Ireland.