Delivering social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals through design for manufacture and assembly would enable the government to boost social and economic outcomes across the country.
Under the banner of ‘build, build, build’ the UK government announced in July its intention to invest in infrastructure to kick-start the UK’s economic recovery, with plans including £1.5Bn to be spent on new or refurbished hospitals, and £1Bn on new school buildings.
But how can the government gain maximum benefits from its spending on this kind of social infrastructure?
Much of our infrastructure is created via individual projects, each with a unique design, using varied materials and local supply chains and constructed onsite by workers who are out in the elements in all seasons. What if multiple schools and hospitals were instead delivered together in co-ordinated programmes, to the same exacting specifications for quality and performance, using processes geared to be significantly more efficient and safer to construct?
This is what is possible using design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA), which, through a focus on process, aims to bring the efficiency associated with the manufacturing sector into the construction industry. It’s an approach that makes sense for many infrastructure and building types – for example, it is already being deployed to create high quality affordable homes DfMA enables many of the construction tasks traditionally performed on site to be replaced with off-site manufacturing, performed in a well-managed factory environment – a manufacturing hub. Hubs can produce modules for multiple schools or hospitals, for example; the modules are dispatched to site for assembly, which is faster, cleaner and safer than traditional construction techniques, requiring a more specialised, geographically concentrated workforce.
The DfMA approach has potentially far-reaching social benefits for communities, including:
Job creation - If hubs are located in deprived areas, DfMA can provide safe, secure employment in locations that desperately need it. Manufacturing hubs offer the type of employment that empowers communities: stable, reliable work that is rooted in one location, enabling individuals to build a rewarding career and support themselves and their families for the long term. This is what is required in many deprived areas, where ambitious people often feel they have to leave their home town or region in order to achieve a fulfilling working life.
A boost to local economies - Analysis of DfMA used for the expansion of Heathrow Airport showed that using centralised manufacturing hubs provided an economic uplift equivalent to around 2% of contract value in the local area. This gain is proportionate to the value of DfMA work carried out, meaning that £100M worth of manufacturing would see £2M gross value added for hub workers and their communities.
Health and wellbeing in the workforce - A DfMA model means that more work can take place in a factory environment that is sheltered from the elements, with robust health and safety procedures and a predictable work pattern, reducing the physical toll on workers and the risk of accidents.
A more inclusive workforce - Offering work that is less physically demanding, and involves less travelling and antisocial hours, will also mean that jobs are open to a wider range of people.
Better quality assets - Most of the social benefits arising from a school or hospital come not during the delivery phase but over the course of its operating life. The standardised specifications produced using DfMA mean that high quality can be achieved more consistently, in contrast to the variability inherent in a bespoke approach. This results in better environments for children to learn and patients to receive treatment, which in turn can help create more reliable, accessible and resilient services for communities.
Future-proofing - Designing and building using common standards and components means that buildings can be reconfigured to meet changing needs, whether that is a new use, extra space, or downsizing. Offsite manufacture means that alterations can be made with less disruption compared with conventional construction, keeping facilities fit for use. In addition to the physical asset that is created by the DfMA process, owners and operators can be provided with a ‘digital twin’ that provides all the information required to manage the asset over its life. This digital twin should also provide feedback that will help inform the development of future components.
Platform for success
The government-funded Construction Innovation Hub (CIH) is working to develop a DfMA-based solution for all forms of social infrastructure, employing the principle of platform-based delivery – a concept common in the automotive and aerospace industries. Platforms consist of standardised key elements that are common across a variety of different models.
Mott MacDonald is an integrator for the CIH programme, working with others to develop a platform that can be used to build schools, hospitals and prisons. While the activities that take place in these buildings are very different, they are all spaces that meet human needs, and so have the majority of their requirements in common – they each need floors, walls, windows, toilets, kitchens, lighting, heating, power, water and ventilation, for example. These elements can all be standardised and supplied in prefabricated ‘modules’, with the interfaces between modular elements also standardised, so that they can be combined in a reliable and predictable way to create different building types and sizes, and meet a range of different user needs.
This is the essence of the platform approach; it provides a library of high-quality components off-the-shelf, enabling designers to concentrate their efforts on the relatively small proportion of features that must be bespoke to suit specific site constraints, or those which would add value for a particular client.
Development of a platform for social infrastructure is still in progress. It will require high standards of quality assurance and the right commercial model to become practicable: the CIH is working to address this, by developing a toolkit and guidance on how to implement value-based procurement that promotes social, environmental and economic value across the lifecycle of the asset.
These objectives are achievable. For a new generation of social infrastructure, delivered at large scale, providing high value for money and bringing tangible social benefits, platform-based delivery employing DfMA is the right solution. It could change our social infrastructure, the construction industry, and our societies for the better.