Off-site construction – The big shift!

With unemployment at a record low and a challenged supply chain, it feels like the tide is turning on traditional construction techniques – is it time for a change?

The on-going focus and shift to off-site construction is a way of using less labour to build more efficiently, so why has there been so many false starts? I propose three main factors as to why and a possible way forward:

1. Standardisation – off-site construction works well when the build is standardised from one unit to another and similar to the manufacturing industry, production of the same thing becomes extremely cost effective when it is completed at scale. We struggle to harness this concept in the construction industry and especially for New Zealand where the desire to create unique buildings is an ongoing trend. There is however opportunity for standardisation where operational requirements make sense to do so. For example, hospital operating theatres and ward rooms should be the same throughout the country. Classroom and teaching facilities could also be standardised along with the mass production of much needed affordable housing.

2. Compliance – this is where things start to become a little tricky. The theory behind off-site all makes sense however our compliance regimes still seem to be stuck ‘on-site’. It starts with the Building Act where building work and unitized products fail to be defined. This flows through to the Building Consent Authorities (BCA’s) where there is a lack of process, expertise and capability around assessing off-site construction. This is exacerbated by oversees suppliers lack of understanding New Zealand’s specific code requirements on such aspects as seismic, soil conditions and coastal variation. These are all factors we have learned to live with in regard to traditional ‘one-off’ builds but become a significant hurdle when producing at scale and across different BCA’s.

3. Pipeline – the final and most significant factor is having the pipeline to remedy factors one and two. If we were to have a pipeline of scale for any one type of construction output, then we could easily solve the Standardisation and Compliance equation. Due to its size, New Zealand has very few organisations outside of government, that could commit to such a pipeline. Perhaps a large supermarket chain or maybe a high street bank but realistically the main benefit would sit with the large, central government estates to harness this thinking.

The Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education and Kāinga Ora all have significant build programmes that would benefit from standardised, volumetric, off-site construction and the call goes out to central government procurement to embrace this thinking and help resolve the challenges. I would love to hear your thoughts!