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Evolution of construction

The traditional view of construction is seriously out of date as the introduction of new processes, new technologies and new ways of working is turning the industry on its head.

“We’re rapidly moving away from the traditional model to one driven by digital engineering, offsite manufacturing and component assembly,” according to Andy Thomson, Laing O’Rourke project director at the Alder Hey in the Park project in Liverpool.

No longer is construction about dirty, dangerous sites with hundreds of people clambering around sky-high scaffolds. Today it’s about harnessing technology to plan a full development virtually, testing every scenario that may affect construction and operation, and building with components manufactured offsite, to ensure quality and minimise disruption. Laing O’Rourke call this Design for Manufacture and Assembly or DfMA.

There are a number of key elements to the process, but the most fundamental are the use of digital engineering and modular construction. Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust’s new 270-bed children’s hospital is a prime example of the difference this can make, both in terms of the construction programme and ensuring that the client’s – in this case patients’ – needs are fully met.

Mr Thomson says that one of the major drivers of the new approach to construction is “ensuring a component assembly methodology is considered within the design right from the outset” as this can transform the ability to deploy resources rapidly.

What Laing O’Rourke’s process ensures is the smooth running of a project from start to finish. The relationship with the client from the earliest stages ensures that delivery is achieved as a partnership between client and the engineering group, no matter what the sector.

David Houghton, NHS health park project manager at Alder Hey, says: “The architect took ideas from the children and created a design that had the necessary modern hospital requirements, but also incorporated the children’s needs.” The benefit of the virtual engineering model, he says, “is we can look at a wireframe model in 3D, and have graphics and visuals of how the design makes people feel in the space”.

We knew at the outset that delivering a project of the scale and engineering complexity of The Leadenhall Building, in the heart of the City, would require the most advanced and cutting-edge construction techniques

The process allows scenario testing of anything that might impact a project, from accessibility, maintenance access, new energy-management models and even water use. This can make a critical difference in the development of anything from a commercial building to an energy plant, from transport to wider infrastructure. The use of such virtual engineering can ensure that any and every project can benefit from stress testing the design before the ground is struck.

“It ensures that the structural, engineering and architectural elements are integrated into a virtual prototype, allowing the whole scheme to be fully visualised and co-ordinated on screen before commencement on site. It also enables a seamless information transfer to our offsite manufacturing facilities,” says Mr Thomson.

The second element that is transformational is the use of modular construction. It limits disruption to the environment, delivering components as and when needed, without the need for space for materials. Not only does this minimise disruption, but it also has strong sustainability benefits, from fewer vehicle movements to less waste.

With up to 70 per cent of a building coming in as components, it allows a move towards just-in-time manufacturing and delivery, therefore streamlining the construction process; effectively it transforms that process into a logistics exercise.

Composite rooms or pods can be built for specific purposes, such as bathrooms, and simply lifted into place. With the flooring, electrics, fittings and plumbing pre-installed offsite, a crane can lift the pod into position where it can be placed in line with the schedule. Built in Laing O’Rourke’s own factories, there is certainty about the quality and how it integrates into the rest of the build.

Modular construction is even more important in the heart of the city, through eliminating the need for onsite storage. Effective delivery of a major commercial development at The Leadenhall Building in London meant offsite manufacturing was essential. With the development being deployed in the heart of the City of London, it was imperative not to impact commercial flow in the area.

Through the deployment of modular construction units, which made up 85 per cent of the Leadenhall development, disruption was minimised and the build accelerated. Mr Thomson says: “Nowadays the expertise demanded in construction has changed dramatically, with logistics and craneage utilisation of paramount importance for example, ensuring manufactured components are installed into a building within a rigorous production sequence.”

This new approach to construction could have a vital role to play in the UK’s future construction plans. There is recognition that a growing economy must invest in infrastructure and indeed the government’s Infrastructure UK will oversee a 2015-16 spend of more than £50 billion.

At the same time managing costs and increasing carbon and resource efficiency is becoming critical. The 2013 government report Construction 2025 lays out plans to put UK construction at the forefront of the global market. It proposes a 33 per cent reduction in construction costs, a 50 per cent reduction in overall time to deployment, as well as in greenhouse gas emissions. It seems clear that lean construction approaches, such as DfMA, are very much the way of the future for the sector.

Mr Houghton is clear that Alder Hey didn’t select a contractor because of the process they use, but because of the bid, design, time to delivery, costs and quality. However, he acknowledges that the impact of the process in other Laing O’Rourke projects had impressed. “We set them an impossible task and they delivered,” he says.

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