Report highlights need for offsite prefabrication to be future of construction

Construction Leadership Council in February 2016 commissioned quantity surveyor Mark Farmer to undertake a review of the UK’s construction labour model on behalf of the government.

The report which has now been published is titled The Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model1, subtitled Modernise or Die.

The report highlights how construction’s dysfunctional training model and its lack of innovation and collaboration as well as its non-existent research and development (R&D) culture is damaging the image and productivity of future of the construction industry.

It continues to say that poor productivity continues to hamper the whole sector including high levels of cost inflation, driven by a shortage of skilled and properly trained workers, has continued to put pressure on  budgets and numerous housing schemes as they have become too expensive to build.

The report sees the future of  better productivity and quality lie in offsite prefabrication and a reinvention of the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB).

Mark Farmer, chief executive of Cast, a real estate and construction consultancy, the report says that the needs of construction firms need ot be more closely aligned to those of the customers that hire them.

“If you buy a new car, you expect it to have been built in a factory to exacting standards, to be delivered on time, to an agreed price and to a predetermined quality” said Mark Farmer, a former partner at EC Harris. “This needs to happen more in construction, so that the investors, developers or building owners hiring construction firms increasingly dictate the use of modern methods of delivery and invest appropriately in the skills agenda to grow this part of the industry. There are more similarities between manufacturing and construction than many people are led to believe and this perception needs to change, starting in the housing market.”

One recommendation set out for the medium term is a behavioural deterrent scheme in the style of the plastic carrier bag charge. This would levy a tax on businesses who buy construction work in a way that doesn’t support industry innovation or skills development. Clients could face paying a suggested levy equal to 0.5% of a scheme’s construction cost but would have the ability to avoid paying this tax completely by commissioning construction in a more responsible way.

Farmer has made 10 recommendations which included:

 

• Government to use its education, fiscal, housing and planning policy measures to initiate change and create the right conditions that will support the construction sector’s modernisation.

• Using the residential development sector as a pilot programme to drive the use of pre-manufactured construction, for example, through offsite built or modular housing.

• A wholesale reform of the CITB and its levy system, including a new mandate to fund and drive forward skills development and innovation.

The inherent skills shortages compounded by more people leaving the industry each year than joining, the construction workforce is rapidly shrinking.

Reliance on a fractured supply chain and self-employment also means there is little incentive for contractors to invest in long term training for the labour force.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that many school leavers and graduates don’t view construction as an attractive career choice.

Construction productivity has not improved in decades so ways to make the work less labour intensive must be found, such as through offsite construction. This, in turn, could make a career in the sector more attractive for young people by moving the work from building sites to digitally-enabled working in factories, it is suggested.

Mark Farmer commented saying:  “The construction industry is in dire need of change. What is clear to me following the nine months spent conducting this review is that carrying on as we are is simply not an option. With digital technology advancements pushing ahead in almost every other industry and with the construction labour pool coming under serious pressure, the time has come for action. The construction industry doesn’t have the impetus needed for this change; it requires external action to initiate change.

“Unless we find some way of promoting innovation in construction and making the work less labour intensive and more attractive to new entrants, there’s a very real danger of the construction sector going into an inexorable decline over the next few years. I hope this review generates some debate in the sector and all involved can consider their role in safeguarding the industry’s long term health.”

Industry minister Jesse Norman commented saying: “This government is determined to support more housebuilding, more quickly and in the places people want to live. Given the launch of the £3bn Home Building Fund, Mark Farmer’s important review in this vital sector is very timely. It makes a strong case for change in the industry, identifies areas where it needs to improve, and sets out areas for action. We will now carefully consider his recommendations.”

Reaction from industry 

Ray O’Rourke, chairman and chief executive at Laing O’Rourke, said: “Laing O’Rourke has invested heavily in innovation and continuous improvement, and therefore I welcome many of the findings and recommendations of the Farmer review. The report shines a light on the serious and systemic issues in UK house building and the wider construction industry, and we cannot afford to ignore them any longer.

“There is significant scope for radical transformation through the adoption of new technologies and advanced manufacturing approaches.  This will deliver the quality housing stock the UK urgently requires and directly address the acute skills gap that threatens our very future.  Government, developers and deliverers need to invest collectively to achieve these shared goals and future-proof the industry.”

Mace chief executive Mark Reynolds commented saying: “Farmer’s review makes it clear that the construction industry needs to invest in training and R&D to boost productivity and ensure we have adequate capacity to deliver the UK’s economic and social infrastructure. It underlines the importance of introducing new skills and technology to the sector. We all need to embrace this catalyst for change to attract a new breed of talent to revolutionise our industry.”

Like Laing O’Rourke, Legal & General has also invested in offsite prefabrication. Legal & General Capital managing director Paul Stanworth commented saying:  “This review sets out a clear way for the construction sector to reinvent itself in order to meet the ever-growing demand for homes and infrastructure. With such a chronic shortage of homes in the UK, we see rapid evolution as a ‘must have’ for the industry, not just a ‘nice to have’. Having identified such a requirement, Legal & General is helping to address this problem by investing in a modern factory to produce homes using manufacturing processes seen in the production of cars and other consumer goods. This construction method is safe, clean, and fast, providing a high level of consistency and durability. We sincerely hope that Farmer’s review galvanises the entire sector to invest in innovation and secure its future.”

If you wish to view of download the full report please do so HERE.

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