Home Features Boosting productivity ‒ what’s the challenge?

In January, the government revealed that productivity of British workers had increased at the fastest rate in more than six years. With margins and resources under pressure, construction is having to redouble its efforts to boost productivity. Adrian JG Marsh considers some recent initiatives.

The UK construction industry’s lacklustre productivity levels and need for radical productivity improvements are well known. During the last decade, output per worker has remained flat in construction, whereas the service sector has improved by just over 30 per cent and output in manufacturing has rocketed by more than 50 per cent.

Productivity improvements in construction will also have a knock on effect on UK housebuilding and infrastructure delivery, helping to alleviate the housing shortage and ensure that major infrastructure projects are more likely to be delivered on-time and within budget.

Stephen Kinsella, executive director – Land, Homes England, said: “Our industry has to deliver 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-20s, but current industry capacity is about 200,000 per annum. The challenge is how we reach this target when we face a skills shortage. We see modern methods of construction as an important route, but the industry must be able to deliver the quality developers demand.”

Last year, construction giant Mace published its Moving to Industry 4.0 report which said there is a fresh chance to deliver transformational growth in productivity and this revolution should radically improve construction industry productivity levels, and improve quality, safety and environmental impact.

Depending on the pace of technological change, Mace estimates that up to 600,000 jobs in the sector could be replaced by new technology in the next two decades. The business warns that without a major effort to reskill the current workforce and attract a new generation of more tech-savvy workers, the construction industry and the UK will lose out on the potential productivity benefits of the next industrial revolution. Mace has put its money where it counts and invested £9m in a rapid construction method which is seeing buildings built at a rate of one storey a week – Mace calls it a Jump Factory.

Mark Reynolds, Mace’s chief executive, and skills lead on the Construction Leadership Council, said: “Our focus has been to build more quickly and efficiently. One of the innovations we’ve had is in Stratford, where we’ve used a Jump Factory to build a floor every week. The best we’ve achieved [in constructing a floor] is 38 hours. Each floor includes floors, walls, bathrooms, services and cladding.

“However, one of our Australian partners has been able to build two floors a week. This level of speed can have a significant impact on the cost of buildings, particularly where it allows investors to start earning revenue sooner.”

Regeneration company Urban Splash’s acquisition of SIG’s modular factory in the East Midlands was part of its plans to expand its off-site construction capacity and reduce on-site work. Its first Town House scheme was completed in Manchester in 2016, with two further sites underway in Manchester and North Shields; a fourth site in Birmingham has also received planning permission. Chris Shaw from Urban Splash said: “We’re planning to boost our output to 2,000 units per annum by 2023. We’ve learnt that by spending more money up front on certain products we create a better product that is more robust and requires less on-site work.

“For example, we chose to use an MDF wall liner and not plasterboard. Although plasterboard is cheaper, we get less cracking with MDF and so avoid having to make good. You can also screw straight onto it and it doesn’t require pattressing.”

The Urban Splash modules are low-rise houses. Each floor plate is a watertight box, and units are virtually fully fitted. All the wiring is in place and they are extremely airtight, very thermally efficient and make the home extremely fuel efficient.

Mr Shaw explained that they work on six weeks in the factory and six weeks on-site: “The labour force in the factory is very skilled but as certain tasks are repetitive there are options to introduce a semi-skilled labour force, but this will be gradual over time.”

Félicie Krikler, a director at Assael Architecture, which has been working with Legal and General on its flagship housing development in North London, said: “We’ve changed the way we design projects. We now have an off-site team and use more collaboration to maximise the potential of all skills in the team. That’s designers, manufacturers and contractors working together.”

For the construction industry to raise productivity, it does need to consider new ways of working and share ideas. Urban Splash has been quite open and exchanged views with other housebuilders. However, Mr Reynolds from Mace was quite damming about the lack of collaboration in the industry, concluding: “There are loads of companies innovating but the problem is a lot are not sharing ideas. Shame on the industry – it needs to work together if it’s going to improve.”

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