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Flexibility is key for the future of infrastructure
Beyond the COVID-19 crisis, clients responsible for social infrastructure have much to gain from a DfMA approach.
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DfMA for rapid adaptive resilience and flexible infrastructure

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how a crisis can create an urgent need for additional capacity that is temporary in nature. Governments and health authorities across the world must be prepared for a second surge of seriously ill patients, even though it is hard to predict where and when this will occur. As we enter the recovery phase and seek a ‘new normal’, temporary additional capacity may also be required in social infrastructure such as schools and prisons in order to facilitate social distancing and infection control.

In order to make the best use of resources in these circumstances, and to build resilience against other unpredictable threats in future, infrastructure clients could benefit from being more agile and flexible in how they plan, deliver and repurpose assets. Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) is an approach that can help provide this, through modular building units that can be assembled quickly, easily and repeatedly. Using components that are mass produced in an efficient and safe factory environment, facilities can be prefabricated and transported to the required location, reducing local transport and infection risks. Mott MacDonald has a wealth of experience with DfMA and is ready to assist clients with projects that provide adaptive resilience and flexible infrastructure.

The challenges that health and social infrastructure clients are facing include:

  • Limited timeframes for crisis infrastructure mean that approvals from operational staff and other stakeholders must be gained very quickly. In this environment proven, off-the-shelf designs and a standardised system for equipment and working practices are preferable.
  • Traditional construction methods are hindered by social distancing rules required to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This is a driver for more prefabrication and assembly, an approach which limits the scale and complexity of what must be done on site as well as ensuring assets can be commissioned and made operational faster.
  • The areas where new facilities are required include those that are most hit by the COVID-19 outbreak and densely-populated urban centres where it is important to minimise transport movements and the size of the labour force.
  • Disruption to supply chains, with limited international availability of components and factories hit by workforce absence, makes bespoke or unusual design elements more problematic and puts the emphasis on standardised components that are readily available.
  • Concerns over the cost and negative publicity of ‘white elephant’ facilities lying unused for long periods when they are not required. These can be allayed by creating flexible facilities that are available for multiple uses and can be repurposed – either at the same location or a different one – after they have performed their primary function, or moth-balled for future use.

Mott MacDonald has pioneered rapid build technologies in the sports and events sectors, and has vast experience in the delivery of healthcare facilities and other social infrastructure around the world. Among the ways that we can help are:

  • Design and build of modular hospitals, schools and other social infrastructure, including supporting infrastructure such as staff areas and accommodation, transport and vehicle access, power generation and auxiliary power supply, perimeter and security, civils and drainage, fire strategy and waste disposal.
  • We can advise on the epidemiology of infrastructure: how to design and configure spaces in such a way that social distancing can be maintained and infection risk minimised.
  • Programme management and integration, including co-ordination of a Project Management Office (PMO), communications, procurement, commercial and contractual support, health and safety, logistics; also, site identification and assessment, facilities management, equipment and staffing requirements.
  • Advice on the use of standardised components and the decommissioning and reuse of assets, to maximise sustainability, efficiency and adaptability.
  • We are able to work with the right partners to bring joined-up DfMA solutions to clients, wherever their location. For example, we have joined forces with partners from multiple disciplines to develop a rapidly deployable turnkey solution providing extra 100-bed critical care capacity on permanent hospital sites.

A modular kit of parts

The key to creating infrastructure in a modular way is to build up a standardised ‘kit of parts’ made up of components which can be deployed in a number of configurations to suit the application.

The parts need to be of the right dimensions that they can be manufactured at scale in a factory and transported to site; they must be of sufficient quality to meet a range of standards; and they must be simple enough to allow for rapid construction.

Designers can then use the kit of parts to come up with a limited number of template designs which can be customised to fit individual demands, scale and site circumstances.

As well as speed and efficiency, other advantages of this template approach include reducing the risk profile and optimising learning. Paul Fisher, Principal Consultant at Mott MacDonald who worked on the UK’s COVID-19 NHS surge hospitals programme, says that organic incremental evolution of hospital design from a template allows for continuous improvement, from being, say, 90% right in the earliest edition, to 95% in the next, closing in on perfect in the third iteration, quite possibly in the same year as the first.

“The more modular hospitals are constructed, the more feedback is generated, the greater the learning, the more efficient installation and operation will become,” says Fisher. “We will see economies of scale, benefits to staff mobility, to maintenance and we will greatly increase our capability and capacity to rapidly scale up the healthcare estate to respond to whatever is demanded of it,“ he adds.

A controlled working environment

As well as being the ideal technique for a quick-build emergency response, DfMA and modular build is also a timely fit with the working conditions that are widely expected to be in place over the next one to two years.

“In a world where we are going to spend the next year in and out of lockdown of some sort, we need to find ways to reduce the number of people travelling around the country and also control how close people get to each other on construction sites,” says Ben Carlisle, Mott MacDonald’s Global Practice Leader for DfMA. “If we go down the DfMA route we can shift more key processes into factories, which are far more controllable and predictable environments to work in.”

If traditional construction sites are unable to run at full capacity because of the pandemic, the provision of crucial new facilities, including hospitals, is going to be delayed as they remain building sites for longer. An offsite, factory approach may be the best way of getting projects completed in the medium term, while promoting safety and causing less disruption to existing facilities, he adds.

Flexible, adaptable infrastructure for the future

Beyond the COVID-19 crisis, clients responsible for social infrastructure have much to gain from the flexibility, adaptability and cost efficiency of a DfMA approach, especially given the likely coming recession.

It is not only the health sector that can benefit from rapid, modular design and build to provide resilience and additional capacity to facilitate social distancing requirements: other social infrastructure such as schools, barracks and prisons can be built in this way and the designs and parts could be made to be largely interchangeable. Additional capacity could be built in response to the current crisis or future ones, and the infrastructure later moved and repurposed. Common standards across sectors could provide the construction industry with the critical volume to make modular infrastructure available ever cheaper, with the supply chain able to hit new heights of productivity.

Mott MacDonald is helping to make this happen through its role as integrator and a leading partner in the UK’s Construction Innovation Hub, a cross-industry initiative to develop a platform for adaptable social infrastructure in the health, education, defence and justice sectors.

This ‘platform’ approach entails collaborators from across the sectors agreeing a core of components that can be used for building infrastructure through assembly, which can be put into factory production and then rolled out for use in hospitals, schools, barracks or prisons.

“If you want to go fast then go alone, but if you want to go far then go together,” says Ben Carlisle. “In the current crisis, it’s natural for clients to want to go as quickly as they can. But if we want to make long-term meaningful progress on DfMA and modular build, then we need to go a long way, and that means everyone coming together to focus on what we have in common rather than trying to tweak everything and make it all bespoke all the time.”

Agreeing on the use of templated, standardised designs not only leads to a more predictable, reliable supply chain, it crucially allows flexibility – with clients able to adapt their facilities to different uses in future. This provides a degree of future proofing as you will be better placed to adapt to changes in technology, adds Carlisle.

“As the technology and equipment that you use changes, it may not suit the existing spaces you have. If we have a more flexible approach to building our facilities in the first place, then we have a better chance of being able to reconfigure them to suit future technologies that we haven’t yet thought of, because we understand how it all fits together and the rules can be developed and established.”

Key lessons

  1. Standardise and multiply. Employ simple, modular, repeatable kit-of-parts designs and off-site manufacturing to enable rapid assembly on site, achieving high quality build with an unskilled labour force that can learn by repetition.
  2. Copy and adapt: Use what has worked elsewhere, but understand the unique challenges of each site and adapt your solution accordingly.
  3. Standard can be good enough: Achieving buy-in and accelerated sign-off from operational staff and other stakeholders requires them to accept that not everything can be tailored and that standardised solutions can often be good enough
  4. Plan beyond the crisis: Draw up a decommissioning plan for the facility before the project team stops work and knowledge of how it was put together disperses to new projects

Case study: Priority Schools Building Programme

A standardised, prefabricated solution developed by Mott MacDonald and architect Bryden Wood is helping to deliver ninety new schools in as little as five years for the UK government’s Education Funding Agency (EFA).

Mott MacDonald was brought on board by the government’s Education Funding Agency (EFA) in 2015 during the first phase of the Priority Schools Building Programme (PSBP), which involved delivering six design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) primary schools in Kent and Surrey. The schools were delivered with a modular design using Portakabin’s Yorkon system, a design and build solution which employs a standardised ‘off the shelf’ kit of parts but allows a high degree of variation in the way they are combined, offering the client a bespoke end product.

The EFA subsequently retained Mott MacDonald as technical advisor for the next phase of the PSBP, which involves the reconstruction or upgrading of 277 schools. About a third of those projects, spread across the south west of England, were earmarked for DfMA. We were tasked with developing a solution that offered real economies of scale, and worked equally well for a wide range of school sizes.

“We needed a standardised, replicable layout that could be constructed from the same pieces, used in different ways, to meet the diverse needs and site constraints of many different schools,” says Andrew Williamson, Mott MacDonald project director.

Our modular design creates a functional, comfortable and replicable school that meets stringent EFA rules for natural light, thermal comfort and ventilation. Modules were designed with a standardised ceiling height and depth, and with dimensions that make them transportable on the back of a lorry. Fabrication and construction time is half the time of a traditional school build, excluding time taken to complete groundworks and enabling. The modular school can be constructed in four months, compared to 10 for a conventional building. The weatherproof school envelope itself can be built in just 14 days.

Mott MacDonald and Bryden Wood have since been awarded the next stage of the EFA’s modular schools project, which focuses on secondary schools.

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