The Importance of Offsite Construction in a Pandemic

In this article, David Harris, Managing Director of offsite construction specialist Premier Modular, looks at the role of offsite construction in the COVID-19 pandemic – from keeping construction moving to supporting the Government in the delivery of new housing to address homelessness.

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The impact of COVID-19 in the UK has been far-reaching and has challenged every aspect of our society and the country’s economy. In these incredibly difficult times, the offsite sector has most definitely switched up a gear – both to help the Government in its response to the crisis and to keep projects moving forward safely.

Social distancing in a factory setting

It has been well documented for many years that offsite construction offers improved safety, reduced risk and greater certainty of completion on time and budget. The fact that our factories continued to operate safely and at capacity from the very start of the pandemic is clear evidence of this.

It is far easier to maintain COVID-safe social distancing in a controlled factory environment than on site – and reducing the number of people on a construction site is a significant advantage for contractors operating in a pandemic.

Work continued on almost all Premier sites at every stage of the pandemic. This proves how offsite solutions can mitigate the effects of the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 and demonstrates how the approach can radically reduce risk on time-sensitive and fast-track projects.

As a result, there has been a renewed focus on offsite manufacturing in every sector – from hospitals and schools to housing.

Helping the Government’s COVID-19 response

The COVID-19 crisis has definitely shone a spotlight on the offsite sector. It has raised awareness of just what is possible with a higher level of collaboration, the use of offsite manufacturing, and pushing of boundaries to support the NHS and public health. There has been a genuine partnership working to deliver numerous healthcare projects to the most incredible timescales.

An example of this is the Nightingale Hospital Exeter. The programme for this new 116-bed hospital was reduced from around 12 months to just 57 days. This could not have been achieved with a traditional contractual way of working.

There was a tremendous ‘can-do’ attitude at every level – from the main contractor BAM to the modular specialist (Premier), fit-out and M&E specialists who all worked as one genuine team.

The project involved conversion of a repurposed retail unit into a hospital which was doubled in size with the installation of 1700m2 of modular buildings for facilities including the pharmacy, staff welfare, catering, utility rooms and patient transfer.

The scale of this modular building project would typically have taken around four months from receipt of order to handover – but here was reduced to just four weeks.

COVID-19 test centre rollout

The same partnership approach has been adopted for the rollout of the COVID-19 testing sites. Premier was awarded a multi-million-pound contract to deliver fully-serviced community testing centres across the UK, from Inverness to Portsmouth.

We have brought together a range of suppliers to install up to three sites per week. The centres are often handed over just a week after receiving the initial notification, which is a phenomenal achievement.

Each standalone test site has a 110m2 purpose-designed testing building pre-fitted with eight patient cubicles, hygienic walls, separate staff entrance and exit, test collection, and drop-off zones, and a family testing room.

Procured through the Crown Commercial Service, Premier’s contract also includes the supply of welfare facilities in three buildings to accommodate a PPE room, stores, test preparation, staff rest room, kitchenette, and toilets, as well as essential services – datacomms, water supply, effluent collection and electricity generators.

Helping to meet Government targets for addressing homelessness

There is also an urgent need across the UK for emergency accommodation for people, who, often through no fault of their own, have become homeless. These individuals and families need housing for a short period of time, while a more permanent place is found for them to live.

Offsite construction is very well-suited to building this type of accommodation. As well as meeting the required standards for quality and sustainability, the approach can reduce the completion time to deliver new temporary homes more quickly for people on emergency housing waiting lists. Increasing the housing stock is even more vital in the current pandemic.

Premier currently has two schemes to address homelessness on site. In High Wycombe, we have installed 58 apartments for Buckinghamshire Council in a £9m contract. The project is an innovative partnership between principal contractor Premier and Claritas Group to deliver the best value for the client and a highly sustainable scheme, which will be completed in a much shorter timescale than with traditional build.

The one-bedroom apartments were fully fitted-out offsite at our factory in East Yorkshire, complete with shower rooms and kitchens pre-installed.

Another modular housing scheme for homeless families is nearing completion in Barking. The new homes are developed by Be First, the regeneration arm of Barking and Dagenham Council. The £1.5m contract was awarded to Premier by main contractor Jerram Falkus and will provide 20 two-bedroom apartments in two blocks, all manufactured offsite. The use of an innovative modular housing solution for this project is reducing the programme to just 15 weeks for the procurement, manufacturing and fitting-out of the apartments, installation on site and commissioning.

Advancements in offsite technology and increased capabilities

There is now much greater confidence in the ability of the offsite sector to deliver high-quality building solutions rapidly – whether for temporary or permanent applications. Offsite technology has improved significantly over the last five to 10 years as has the sector’s ability to manage the delivery of these projects with the least disruption possible. The sector is now much more mature, and the technical and project management capabilities among the leading offsite specialists have advanced hugely – to the benefit of construction clients who need fast solutions to expand capacity.

As offsite specialists have embraced lean manufacturing techniques, productivity has also increased. The sector is simply doing things better. This means even shorter lead times for both temporary facilities and bespoke buildings and extensions.

Manufacturers have widened their skillsets and improved project management and BIM capabilities, giving clients and contractors much greater assurance of delivery on time, reduced programmes, stringent quality standards and with the least disruption possible.

Early engagement with the offsite specialist is still absolutely critical. Design for offsite from the outset, and you will optimise the benefits of standardisation – shorter lead times, less work on site and manufacturing to accurate tolerances for enhanced build quality.

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