Off-site construction: balancing risk and reward

In a bid to speed up construction and begin to address the UK’s worsening shortfall of new homes, developers are increasingly turning to novel off-site construction methods, such as ‘flying factories’. When used effectively, these temporary factories can reduce the risk of project delays, whilst ensuring an efficient and high-quality build. To take advantage of these new ways of working however, project managers must balance the risks the rewards.

The UK government is starting to show real support for off-site construction methods as a means of tackling the current housing shortage. The main benefits they bring are increased efficiency – helping to accelerate housing development, whilst reducing the risk of cost and time complications. Building modular homes in specialist factories eliminates a lot of the productivity challenges faced by traditional building projects, such as adverse weather, third-party interference, and the availability of labour at the required location.

A major advantage of off-site construction is a net reduction in risk. For example, off-site construction methods can mitigate the risk of injury to members of public who live or travel near to the construction site. During a traditional build, some homeowners may be resident during construction, exposing them to a risk of accidents due to the large volume of heavy plant and machinery movements in close proximity. Building homes remotely removes much of this risk.

Other challenges which can cause significant cost and/or time delays are also addressed when using off-site construction methods. For example, there is less need for specialist onsite labour, less wastage and more reuse of equipment. The risk of plant breakdown and adverse weather conditions are also less likely to cause serious schedule delays and important connections to utility services are easier to manage when there are fewer specialist workers onsite.

Despite their potential to reduce the overall risk profile of housebuilding projects, off-site construction methods also bring associated risks. In some cases, these risks can be very significant and careful management is required from the outset. If errors are not identified during the design stage for example, this could lead to costly re-works, which could push the build back by weeks or even months. Detailed and meticulous planning at design stage are essential to avoid the need for re-works at a later stage.

Another key risk that should be factored in when selecting the location of the ‘flying factory’ is the availability of skilled labour in the locality. Without this, workers may need to be recruited from further afield, adding cost to the project.

Other risks that the project manager should consider are the logistical factors. For example, are there any potential issues in transporting the modular units from the factory to the construction site? Management of this risk would need to be done through detailed route planning, load/size requirements and liaison with third parties (highways, local councils etc.) if any removal of street furniture is required. This can be time consuming and difficult.

Off-site construction has the potential to transform the construction sector and yet there are still some pockets of resistance. For some, the new ways of working could pose a threat to their jobs, particularly as off-site construction methods are becoming more reliant on automated systems, which provide an assurance of precision and high quality. Whilst such concerns are understandable, the industry must continue to adapt and modernise to stay competitive, and project managers should view this as an opportunity to increase their knowledge and breadth of experience.

In order to mitigate against the risks associated with off-site construction, project managers should follow risk management best practice. They should start by carrying out a comprehensive risk assessment and analysis, in order to identify and quantify risks and opportunities associated with the project, before putting appropriate mitigation strategies in place. Specialist support may be needed in carrying out workshops with the major stakeholders to ensure their buy in for any cost contingencies required.

Once the project is underway, project managers should ensure that full and thorough risk identification and assessment sessions are undertaken at regular points. Sticking to this approach, from the design stage through to completion will ensure good decision making and improve outcomes.

Andrew Cullis, risk analyst at risk management consultancy, Equib.