A solution to the productivity problem

Sharing knowledge across the supply chain and driving innovation is vital to boost the construction industry’s productivity and meet the UK’s housing needs, says Neil Ash of Siniat UK.

The construction industry is suffering from a productivity crisis. Only last month, the Farmer Review of the UK construction labour model called for the industry to do more to improve its efficiency, recommending closer collaboration, innovation, and new recruitment and training models to support the country’s development needs.

It is an issue facing the entire UK economy. According to research association the Conference Board, productivity per hour in France, Germany and the United States is now around 30 per cent higher than in the UK. Put simply, French, German and American workers can achieve in just four days what their British counterparts deliver in five.

The need to boost the speed of construction is particularly acute in the residential sector. An estimated 300,000 additional homes are needed each year to meet the housing shortfall, and with the UK’s population continuing to expand this demand looks only likely to increase over the coming years. Britain’s populace is expected to reach 70 million by 2027, while London’s population alone is set to reach 10 million by 2030. Boosting activity in the multi-residential sector in particular will be vital in making the best use of the land resources available, plugging this growing gap between supply and demand.

There is no silver bullet solution to the productivity challenge, but there are incremental steps that we can take that together will drive significant change. For a start, we need to do more to unlock the valuable knowledge that lies within the supply chain.

Better together

If we are to drive productivity within the residential sector, we need to embrace more collaborative working methods. The housebuilding industry has come a long way in this regard, but an important disconnect remains between the different parts of the supply chain.

Crucially, we need to do more to bring materials providers in from the very start of the design process. More often than not these groups are still only engaged towards the latter stages of a project. Getting them onboard from the beginning allows clients and contractors to tap into their expertise early on, when a project’s design and the programme of works can still be influenced.

Getting the building products right for a development can significantly speed up project build times. The cladding and facades sector is a key example in this regard. The quicker a building can be made watertight, the quicker interior trades such as electricians and plumbers can access the inside of a building, dramatically speeding up the build process.

This is why companies have been exploring the use of specially designed gypsum boards as external sheathing boards, driving significant time savings for projects. Researchers have developed a highly water and mould resistant board, which is faster to install than traditional cement particle boards and can be left exposed on frame for up to three months. By making a building completely weathertight, it allows dryliners, electrical engineers, heating engineers and others to begin work in advance of the completed facade.

If contractors and clients need to engage with materials providers earlier on, then it is also vital that building products manufacturers and suppliers do what they can to drive innovation. It will require a significant time and monetary investment, but larger companies with the necessary resources need to work with industry experts and customers to drive research into products that can cut down installation times and boost on-site efficiency.

Suppliers have been working with the BRE (Building Research Establishment) to look at the speed of installation of different partitions, ceiling and wall linings, concentrating in particular on multi-residential projects. This kind of research can help to further target innovations in work, making sure that companies can focus on the material solutions that offer the best results for installers and their projects. Exploring how materials can drive the uptake of offsite construction methods and developing new hybrid systems to meet project requirements more quickly, without compromising on performance, are equally important. These are just a few examples, but redirecting the focus of the wider supply chain towards innovation and knowledge sharing will help the housebuilding industry to realise significant efficiencies.

Wider benefits

The industry needs to work together to solve the productivity challenge, and tapping into the knowledge of materials providers will be a key part of this. Embracing a more collaborative approach will not only help to meet the UK’s housing needs by speeding up build processes, it will bring wider benefits for the construction industry too. Faster build times will help to improve industry margins as clients, contractors and their supply chain can move on more quickly to their next projects.

It is no replacement for the good work that is already being done to drive industry training and development programmes forward, but a more efficient approach to labour resources will support ongoing efforts to tackle the construction industry’s skills gap. Early involvement by manufacturers and specialist contractors will bring benefits for our homes in the long-term. By involving all parts of the supply chain early on a project, companies can get the design right from the start, using this combined knowledge to help reduce future maintenance requirements and costs, ultimately building better homes that meet the needs of their occupants.

Neil Ash is managing director of Siniat UK