In the early ‘noughties’, I ran a seminar for ‘constructing excellence’ on ‘safety by design’, followed a few years later by one on ‘designing out waste’. The purpose in mentioning them is to emphasise the fact that, despite new products and new and updated regulations, such as those dealing with high-speed electronic communications networks, the house-building industry has made little progress so far this century.
Back then, I argued for buildings to be designed via ‘partnerships’ that embraced site constraints, programmed out risk, and ensured good immediate and ongoing communications with present and future stakeholders. I pointed out that to do so required ‘design teams’ who not only knew their legal duties and responsibilities, but who also understood how the job would be done. In turn, this meant grasping the logistics, getting to grips with handling and ‘temporary’ works, as well as embracing snagging and maintenance along with the lifetime risks of the building both in construction, in use and decommissioning. Stressing that ‘good design’ is SAFE, I also urged participants to accept their responsibility for making others aware of all of these risks.
While today it’s pretty easy to specify IT-related products for any building, like visual or fingerprint recognition access, remote video surveillance, cell-phone heat and light control and so on, doing so efficiently remains a major challenge. Indeed, arguably this is more important than these ‘nice to have’ gizmos and gadgets themselves. Home buyers and renters alike remain more concerned about the cost and speed efficiency of new home construction, their comfort, running, and maintenance costs.
In several respects ‘designing out waste’ was an extension of the earlier attempt to introduce business innovations from outside the construction industry. Techniques and disciplines such as Six Sigma and Kaizen were applied across the whole design and build process to cut out waste in design time, scheduling delays and prototyping errors, as well as material waste.
Once again, an important element of this was the acceptance that building design needed to become a collaborative exercise, rather than the God-given domain of any one person. As in the automotive, aircraft and ship-building industries, for example, recognition of the complex nature of the building enterprise was seen as increasingly important.
Designing with partnering in mind emphasises communications, the importance of avoiding delays, and the need to programme out errors. It also recognises the need to really know what stocks and other ‘industry standard’ materials are readily available, how jobs will be done in practice, and the need for a better and fuller understanding of the building and manufacturing tasks involved.
Grasping the totality of the logistics involved was seen then, and remains today, of major importance. Getting to grips with transport, ‘right first-time’ and ‘continuous improvement’ processes were and are obvious candidates for expanding the horizons of the design team. Equating the notion of ‘lifetime costs’ with the avoidance of delays and the need to programme out errors, along with a sound knowledge of materials, processes and procedures remains vital. Although accepting that good design avoids waste, then and now many ‘professionals’ – used to a more relaxed regime – found and find this an unpopular constraint. Few, it seems, are ready even now to accept responsibility for, and bear the cost of, any waste caused by them.
As we move further toward factory-built homes, customers, their professional advisors and consultants must understand that, to produce a building in the factory requires all elements to be determined in detail before work commences, rather than muddling through trying to resolve complicated design issues as a project progresses. While this is possible using sloppy ‘wet’ trade building techniques, where adjustments can be made in-situ, complex off-site manufactured elements are much more difficult to alter. Failure to understand this is both prejudicing MMC and costing clients and builders small fortunes to correct. Partnering for the whole design, supply and construction chain is a vital process that must be developed to correct this.
Consequently, while moving with the times to incorporate all that is best and wonderful and time-saving and comfortable, and desirable in any building design we undertake, manufacture or build, I still find myself shouting at the wind for fundamental shifts in professional attitudes. However, the winds of change are blowing and I do detect small shifts. As construction moves off-site into the factory, these will greatly improve efficiency, quality, and affordable delivery of all levels of social and private housing.
Prof. Dr. Michael Benfield is a chartered environmentalist and is chairman of Benfield ATT.