Sector - Housing

Opportunity to Transform Construction

David Clark is Manufacturing Director at The McAvoy Group in this latest feature for UK Construction Online, he speaks about how output might be down due to the Coronavirus pandemic, but the opportunity to transform the construction industry has never been greater.

While the disappointing construction output figures for May certainly aren’t a surprise to anyone in the industry, they have laid bare the extent of the damage inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic – and the challenges ahead in reaching pre-Covid levels of activity while adapting to our ‘new normal.’

May saw a record 29.8% fall in output compared with the previous three-month period, while new work plunged by 30.03% and repair and maintenance by 28.9%. Output did rise slightly (8.2%) in May with the reopening of sites and improving availability of materials, but it remains at a significantly lower level than normal – 38.8% lower in comparison with February 2020.

Declining output figures are to be expected given the unprecedented challenges facing the industry – however, the crisis also shone a spotlight on productivity; a problem before the crisis hit and worsened by Covid-19. Recent research highlighted productivity losses of around 35% on UK construction sites as a direct result of the pandemic, compounding the systemic productivity challenges the sector already faces.

In recent weeks, we have seen a series of predictions on the UK’s recovery from Covid-19 – some more optimistic than others – but we can all agree on the fact that there are tough times ahead.

The government has been swift to act, setting out its “Roadmap to Recovery” plan – within which boosting productivity plays a key role. It has been positive to see its commitment to supporting construction as an engine of the UK economy, with increased funding and infrastructure spending. As a result, the industry can focus on reaching pre-March levels of output as quickly as possible.

But is there more we can do? Much of the rhetoric has, so far, concentrated on rebuilding; taking back the gains we have lost. What we have here is an opportunity to transform the industry for the better – and, what’s more, we know exactly how to do it.

For some years now there has been extensive discussion around tackling productivity in the construction industry, which lags-behind our continental neighbours. With government backing and new funding commitments we have a real chance to make lasting changes. Embracing Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) and digital technology will allow us to secure the productivity improvements we need and balance some of the more challenging impacts of Covid-19, including social distancing on site and the availability of materials.

Now is the time to accelerate the adoption of MMC, leading the way with offsite construction methods, digital platforms and focusing on the lean manufacturing methods that are commonplace in other industries, such as the automotive supply chain for example.

There is enormous value in R&D and innovation and the industry is making huge strides to drive forward MMC principles, making construction faster, safer and greener than ever before. As part of the Innovate UK-backed consortium, Seismic, we have seen the power of collaboration first-hand, working alongside our competitors to increase standardisation in the delivery of education buildings, reducing the number of parts per module by up to 30% to around 1,900 components. Seismic has facilitated significant improvements in the way school buildings are delivered – projects can now be delivered with up to 50% lower emissions and 33% lower costs, without compromising on design. The same principles are transferrable to other sectors, from healthcare and other local infrastructure through to commercial projects and residential buildings.

We need a commitment to innovation, collaboration and the sharing of knowledge, and a willingness to do things differently.

Whilst there may be few positives to arise from the coronavirus pandemic, the continued appetite for innovation in the UK is definitely one of them. Ingenuity in design and manufacturing really shone during the early days of the crisis, with manufacturers across the country called upon to produce ventilators in mere weeks. We must channel that same commitment to innovation within the construction industry. There is a real will to get things done, and we’re likely to see significant strides made in transforming the industry for the better in the coming months and years, creating a sector that is more efficient and better equipped to deal with the challenges ahead.

There are many unknowns in terms of tackling the coronavirus pandemic and what might lie ahead – whether it will mean further closure of sites during the winter months, or a return of 2m distancing. Whatever the future holds, by putting MMC front-and-center, the construction industry stands itself in the best stead to keep projects on track, prevent spiraling costs and make sure output continues to head in the right direction.

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