Engaging clients with offsite

Clients are often cited as the biggest barrier to offsite take-up. So how can they be persuaded of its benefits? Will Mann asked three modular specialists.
Premier Modular’s Desborough Road development in High Wycombe

‘Architects don’t know enough about offsite’

Nathalie Meunier, director, Premier Modular

Nathalie Meunier

We regularly talk to clients who are keen to pursue an offsite solution, but their architects and cost consultants can be resistant and put up barriers. Many architects just don’t know enough about offsite construction to produce drawings that work for manufacturing. There are probably only four or five architects in each sector with sufficient knowledge of volumetric systems to do this well.

Clients and contractors need to engage with an offsite specialist early, and prior to tendering, so we can set the right parameters for design and ahead of the planning process. RIBA Stage 2 is the best time. Engagement at this stage will be more efficient and more cost effective because you can maximise fitout off site. That will reduce work on site – an important issue on school, hospital, and city centre sites.

It is important that cost consultants appreciate when comparing tenders that costs for offsite construction are presented differently to in-situ construction, particularly if they don’t usually work on offsite schemes.

Modular can be introduced at later RIBA stages but designs will need to be extensively reworked to fit a manufacturer’s module sizes which adds to cost – or multiple module sizes will be needed, which removes the benefit of standardisation and is therefore far less cost efficient.

It is also likely to result in design clashes, for example between M&E services and structural steelwork. These issues would typically have to be rectified on site, incurring cost, increasing disruption, and removing the programme benefits.

We advise clients to engage with an offsite specialist and develop the design with them from the outset. Visit the factory, attend workshops and visit completed projects. And ask questions! Recognise that offsite solutions are different to in‑situ construction, but with an open and transparent approach and working as a genuine partnership, the benefits are enormous.

‘Manufacturing is different from onsite building’

Andy King, deputy managing director of Wernick Buildings, and technical chairman for the Modular and Portable Building Association

Andy King

To be successful in a modular project, clients really need to engage with their modular contractor as they would with their architect at RIBA Stage 1, and create a brief around a modular solution. With most traditional projects, the design is still ongoing when you start on site but achieving a design freeze prior to the commencement of manufacture is critical with a modular project.

If clients get to RIBA Stage 3 before they appoint a modular supplier, their designs often don’t match the gridlines or the specific engineering of our building modules. This would mean we’d have to scrap a lot of the design work they’d done already, which would inevitably increase costs and take additional time.

The standardisation of modular products means that buildings are predesigned to be fully compliant, which allows for a smoother design process from a proven system. Any client-specific requirements can be easily added.

Wernick Buildings’ Y-Twyni building, Swansea (Image: Mike Roberts)

To use a modular approach effectively, clients should have a basic understanding of module size constraints and transport limitations, standard designs versus bespoke products and the impact on cost and speed when using non-standard systems. Preferred M&E options can be different to those of traditional construction.

Manufacturing processes are different compared to onsite building. Clients will need to make quick and timely decisions as the modular method is a speedy process that can be let down by slow decision-making. It’s worth noting that standard cost models and bill-of-quantity breakdowns for modular don’t fit into standard formats. Clients should also have an understanding of vesting and payment schedules for work completed within the factory.

Modular building systems have evolved and despite there still being some misconceptions about their quality and permanence, they are able to easily respond to the needs and requirements of a range of sectors.

‘The Construction Playbook is a great place to start’

Paul Ruddick, chairman, Reds10

Paul Ruddick

The main obstacle we find with clients is a desire to procure MMC through traditional procurement methods and tier 1 contractors. This stems from the misconception that the modular market is only capable of manufacturing certain elements of buildings and that other contractors are required to integrate the offsite elements. But this isn’t the case and integrated modular contractors like Reds10 can design, build, finance and operate buildings.

Client-side project teams should appreciate how far modular technology has moved on and recognise that high-quality, low-carbon buildings with high architectural integrity are now possible.

Mindset and understanding play a large part in the success of any modular solution. Firstly, clients should identify which type of modular construction is most applicable for the project. The MMC definition framework provides a useful starting point.

Clients should strive for a deep understanding of the modular process and the benefits of MMC and open their minds to a new way of working. This includes locking down key design decisions and using technology to coordinate a design that can go straight into manufacture.

Armed forces accommodation at Nescliff Training Camp, Shropshire, by Reds10

Modular works best when it is embedded from the start – Stage 0 (Strategic Definition) or 1 (Preparation & Briefing) – to optimise the outcome. Some clients fear that this could reduce their ability to engage the wider market, but it actually opens up the market, as it can be delivered using either MMC or traditional construction.

Adoption at later RIBA stages may lead to an inefficient frame solution, the need to include non-standard design details and the loss of architectural integrity. Some programme time will also be lost.

Clients looking for a better understanding of the offsite market will find the Construction Playbook from the government is a great place to start; it encourages them to embrace the skills and expertise of specialist modular contractors to deliver better outcomes.

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