As the UK construction sector continues to ride the pandemic wave, offsite methods of construction will be seen as a way to encourage greater efficiency and higher productivity across the industry in a post-COVID world. Traditional building processes will remain but if we can rethink the way we design, engineer and construct buildings, it will go some way to deliver projects quicker, better and with a greater degree of precision. Jemma Ison of IG Masonry Support makes the case for the modular, offsite manufacture of products such as brick slip soffit systems as a way to give architects full design flexibility whilst helping the industry to respond to its needs and economic conditions going forward.
Offsite manufacturing – or modular construction – has come a long way since the post-war prefabs of the 1940s and 50s. The development of new technologies that facilitate freedom of design are welcome news for architects. Aspirational aesthetics can be achieved by utilising the latest techniques in offsite manufacturing, particularly in terms of complex brick features. With offsite methods, architects can create intricate brickwork designs that are guaranteed to translate onsite.
As well as offering a high-spec translation, offsite methods ensure the same quality finish every time. The entrance façade of Hendrick’s Gin Palace in Girvan, ScotIand, saw the design and manufacture of five soaring corbelled brick slip feature arches with intricate bond patterns. In total ten arches featuring on the front elevation were successfully manufactured to the same quality finish in factory-controlled conditions and fitted seamlessly with the brickwork onsite. Internally three deep soffit arches were also manufactured offsite and then supplied to site. The same levels of consistency and quality were essential on the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre (DNRC) project. Over 1000 brick slip feature arches and just under 3km of offsite cornice were manufactured and designed. It would have been a time-consuming, highly-skilled task to create arches and cornice using traditional methods onsite, but offsite solutions enabled the creation of identical arches of various designs and cornice detail that would achieve the architect’s desired aesthetic.
The uniformity that was essential to these projects can run the risk of being compromised if traditional trades are employed. However, with modular construction this replication simply isn’t an issue. Taking the construction of complex brick features offsite into factory-controlled conditions drives the level of quality and consistency that is needed to achieve architectural excellence. Where barriers to creativity are unwanted, offsite construction is a worthy solution.
Addressing the skill shortage
Rethinking the way we design, engineer and construct buildings will help deliver projects quicker, better and with a greater degree of precision. Building better with these modern methods of construction plays a part in plugging the skills gap by reducing onsite labour whilst addressing the high demand for new buildings. In recent years the UK has fallen behind its European neighbours by depending on skilled trades at the expense of any mechanised processes or components that reduce site working. Offsite manufacture provides better working conditions for workers, reduces build schedules and improves environmental performance in the construction process.
The design possibilities which offsite manufacturing offers can, often, reach further than the capabilities of traditional build processes. Whilst conventional methods are still essential to the industry, on some large-scale developments it simply isn’t feasible cost-wise to use highly-skilled craftspeople. Besides, if cost isn’t an issue it might be hard to find these experts; due to the skills shortage they are becoming harder to locate. Yet, with offsite methods this gap can be filled.
In an industry where safety is essential, there should be a collective obligation to select building methods which control risk and assure quality. Architects are well-versed on the heaviness and complexity of installing traditional brickwork and systems, especially on large commercial developments and high-rise buildings. Here, architects not only have a responsibility to ensure a design translates onto site. An architect’s design choices have ripple effects throughout a project. It is why it is highly important for them to select methods of construction which keep the likelihood of risk to an absolute minimum.
Offsite manufacturing is a potential solution to mitigating risk. With prefabricated products everything is fixed in a factory-controlled environment where quality is guaranteed every time. When it comes to installation, architects can rest assured that their design will be installed quickly with reduced risk.
No matter how ambitious the design, these easy-to-install solutions can deliver significant reductions in installation time by up to 90%. Any higher initial costs can be offset by saving time and money in terms of labour. A quality finish that meets the required aesthetics and blends seamlessly with the surrounding brickwork can also be achieved.
Offering endless creative scope for architects and hitting the mark on quality, offsite manufacturing is a construction process that is here to stay. Although prefabrication is a method which has at times been hindered by its own outdated reputation, the norm is changing and fast. This resurgence is characterised by limitless design possibility. Offsite manufacturing is now synonymous with the ever-elusive quality control, ensuring the same, grade A finish can be translated onsite and achieved every time.