Eye-to-eye with off-site construction

Barry McDonagh
Modern methods of construction are a huge opportunity to transform our built environment. Our team’s visit to a manufacturing plant in Northern Ireland brought to life this important part of the supply chain.

The Irish and British governments, like so many others, are under pressure to tackle under-supply in city centre housing. Dublin, especially, is in the grip of a housing crisis, with mixed results on the Rebuilding Ireland plan. Off-site construction is potentially part of the solution, bringing greater efficiencies to the sector.

Our team recently visited an off-site manufacturing plant in Newry, Northern Ireland, to improve our understanding of how new technology can play an important part in changing the way buildings are constructed. We were hosted by ConnexOffsite Ltd, bathroom pod manufacturer for Ireland and the UK.

It was an illuminating visit, and I’d recommend industry colleagues to follow suit. We hear so much about the theory of off-site construction, and, in my team’s case, may be closely involved in the feasibility, specification and costs—but there’s nothing like seeing for yourself, to learn more about the materials and methods that could transform our built environment.

In the wider field of modern methods of construction (MMC), there’s notable industry-wide interest in the use of modular construction. Although long accustomed to certain modular components such as bathroom pods, the industry has proved slow to adopt the technology more widely. Industry influencers, however, are insistent about the urgent need to design differently, procure differently and build differently.

Speaking at a March 2019 Enterprise Ireland event at the Embassy of Ireland in London, Mark Farmer, author of the 2016 UK Government Review of the Construction Labour Market Model Modernise or Die, said the industry was still beset by outdated practices and an inability to address external factors it can’t control. RICS similarly called for MMC to supplement existing capacities and support alternative models for housing delivery in its 2018 report Modern Methods of Construction: A forward-thinking solution to the housing crisis?

Back at the manufacturing plant, it was certainly impressive to see how the technology worked, the uniformity of the materials and the speed of the operation. Check out this animation, for a flavour of the process we witnessed during our visit. The standard of the finished product was also impressive—contrary to popular opinion, you can’t necessarily spot a modular construction.

Advantages can be summarised as follows:

  • Programme time savings[1].
  • Reduced construction loan interest, increased profit from earlier opening.
  • Centralised procurement.
  • Increased specification certainty—all materials included
  • Single installation contract instead of several trades contractors.
  • Reduced site support resources - electricity, material handling equipment etc.
  • Less disruption on site—up to 90% fewer vehicle movements), less noise and dust.
  • Improved health & safety on site.
  • Sustainability—life cycle analysis demonstrates 40% reduction on overall environmental impact.
  • Factory waste is less than 1.5% compared with 7%+ on a traditional site.
  • Recycling of waste is more reliably controlled in a factory environment
  • Consistent quality.
  • Post-handover defects reduction.
  • Single point of contact for warranty.
  • Services and equipment easily accessible for maintenance once operational.
  • Addresses industry skills shortages.
  • Factory operatives are up to 250% more efficient than the same activity on-site.

Within our client base, we’ve found a range of receptiveness to MMC. Not every client is convinced, with some developers still wary of outsourcing and choosing to continue with more traditional construction methods. Negative perceptions are often around quality, but confidence has grown as products improved. Our experience is that uptake is driven by the potential for programme savings, and the other benefits detailed above, rather than cost savings. In some settings (student accommodation for example), site health & safety is a prominent factor, as is post-handover maintenance advantage.

Here in Ireland, the residential sector typically uses the methodology in student accommodation, apartment and later living, and the hospitality sector, but we may see wider residential application in the future. Outside of residential, the hospitality sector leads the way, but commercial property is also making increasing use of MMC for some areas.

SNC-Lavalin’s Faithful+Gould business is at the forefront of advising clients on the use of MMC and digital applications, and is also active at UK government policy level. Read more on MMC here, from our colleague Terry Stocks (Faithful+Gould director and director at the Cambridge University Centre for Digital Built Britain).


[1] In Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, the use of bathroom pods for IHG (Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza) reduced the construction programme from 48 weeks to 26 weeks for a typical 80-bedroom hotel.