Offsite construction – the pressure reliever?

With the housebuilding industry under ever-increasing pressure to deliver, attention is moving to the evident benefits that modern methods of construction could provide to the sector. Here, Nathan Annand, Group Product Manager at Hadley Group, explores the rise of offsite construction within housing and the role that light-gauge steel frames can play.

While recent statistics from the National House Building Council (NHBC) have revealed that the number of new homes registered to be built in the UK during 2019 has risen to a new 13-year high, the figures still fall widely short of the government’s target to build 300,000 new homes each year. Indeed, the housebuilding sector is finding itself under increasing pressure, falling under scrutiny for its slow progress in delivering the quality homes that the country so desperately needs.

It has been four years since the famous catalyst for change, Mark Farmer’s ‘Modernise or Die’ report, was published, in which he called upon the construction industry to revolutionise its old-fashioned approach in line with more modern methods. Since this time, offsite construction has been the topic of much discussion within the housebuilding industry. Not only has the government clearly recognised the need for modern methods of construction, pledging financial support and also helping to set up the Construction Innovation Hub – of which Mark Farmer is the chair – but housebuilders too are also slowly starting to incorporate offsite methods. For example, Barratt, one of Britain’s biggest housebuilders, has recently announced its aim to build a quarter of its homes using modern methods of construction by 2025.

The potential benefits of offsite construction to the housing sector are widely apparent, with perhaps the two biggest advantages being its speed and efficiency. In fact, projects that implement off-site construction are said to be able to be completed between 30% and 50% faster than traditional methods – offering housebuilding the huge boost it needs if the sector is ever going to be able to satisfy the government’s 300,000 homes target.

Light-gauge steel frames are a fundamental aspect of offsite construction, capable of being used on a wide-range of building types, including low-rise and high-rise housing projects. The steel building envelope components can be fabricated to specific project requirements and pre-assembled in a controlled factory environment, before then being delivered to site as and when required.

This allows for improved speed and efficiency at all stages of a project. Not only does it reduce the likelihood of delays or ‘downtime’ caused by poor weather conditions – a key concern on UK construction projects – but the actual construction and assembly process will also be quicker, with the main structural components fabricated away from site and then simply needing to be lifted and fixed into place once delivered to site. Indeed, unlike traditional brick-built homes, light-gauge steel frame houses can be very quick to construct, improving efficiency, minimising waste and even leading to early project completions.

Light-gauge steel is also more lightweight than alternative building materials, such as timber or concrete frames, meaning it can be transported to site easily and help to reduce the weight of the overall structure, in turn providing relative savings on foundation loads and sizes.

Last, but certainly not least, is the issue of quality. While housebuilders are under pressure to deliver a huge number of homes every year, it is vital that the build quality is not affected as a result of this urgency. Providing the UK with housing stock that is truly built to last is imperative. Renowned in the construction industry for being highly strong and durable, a steel building solution could be an excellent choice for the housing sector. What’s more, with the potential for structural components to be fabricated to specific project requirements and within a controlled factory environment, quality checks can be far more easily and efficiently carried out, reducing the likelihood of snags or re-work being required further down the line.

It is evident that something needs to change within the housebuilding sector if the government’s goal of alleviating/mitigating the housing crisis with 300,000 new homes each year is ever to be achieved. The benefits of offsite construction are widely discussed and debated, but the area where its advantages can perhaps truly shine is housing. By specifying light-gauge steel frames, as opposed to traditional brick and masonry construction, the housebuilding industry can reap many rewards, including improved speed, efficiency and quality.