Construction after COVID-19: let’s keep calm and carry on improving

Jaimie Johnston
Jaimie Johnston 15-06-2020

There has been a lot of talk about how COVID-19 will change everything. I don’t think it will.

COVID-19 will change some things. We will have to adapt elements of how we live and work, but they will be variations on themes, not fundamental departures from the past. We will still need to design and deliver houses, hospitals, schools, offices and factories more efficiently. And while COVID-19 will add its own complexities to the mix, the issues we were facing before the pandemic are still there; climate change, Brexit, skills and labour shortage, sector capacity, and so on.

My role at the Construction Innovation Hub has been to work with the industry to ensure that the solutions to these issues can be easily adopted, with a particular focus on the Platforms approach to Design for Manufacture and Assembly (P-DfMA). I see nothing about COVID-19 that suggests we should stop, or go down a different path. On the contrary, I would argue that COVID-19 will show how we must continue with more determination and energy than ever to implement the Platforms approach which is tried and tested, with proven commercial benefits for clients: delivering schemes more quickly, reducing capital cost, increasing high value architectural design time and ensuring designs that give maximum value, as they co-ordinate and reconcile all aspects of the scheme upfront.

What is the Platforms approach?

The Platforms approach to Design for Manufacture and Assembly (P-DfMA) takes the tried and tested principles of manufacturing and applies them to construction. In manufacturing, wide arrays of products are made from the same basic components using shared underlying structures. A range of cars, for example, may share a common chassis (the Platform) and the vast majority of parts (the components). The difference comes in the finishing.

By working out the features – such as floor heights and structural spans – which are shared across different types of buildings (such as schools, flats, offices, hospitals), we have identified a set of standardised parts (such as beams, columns, connectors, slabs) that can form the basis of the vast majority of construction projects. As with cars, this approach doesn’t mean all buildings will look the same, or deliver the same experience, but it does deliver significant benefits in design, supply, manufacturing and assembly. It allows us to engage with a whole new approach to value, as my Hub colleague, Ron Lang, wrote so well about recently.

To ensure industry can confidently adopt this approach, we have taken it beyond theory to an approach that is well defined and trialled in:

  • Physical form, both on a live Landsec project (the world’s first private sector Platform build project – more on this later) and via further prototyping for clients such as the MOJ
  • Digital form, defining the technology that is required to deploy the approach easily.

Supporting the Design and Construction Industry

At the start of June, the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) published its ‘Roadmap to Recovery for the UK Construction Industry’.

The plan describes how in three phases we can ‘restart, reset and reinvent’ the industry in the face of the collapse brought about by the pandemic, and expected in a subsequent economic downturn.

The CLC also identifies six industry priorities which are at the heart of the recovery plan: procure for better value; skills; building safety; net zero carbon; innovation; fair practices. The Hub and P-DfMA will have a key role in supporting these aims, so that we can all confidently innovate our way to a more productive future design and construction industry:

1. Procure for better value

COVID-19 highlighted just how global and fragile our supply chains are, with availability of parts and materials affecting UK sites even before our lockdown came into effect. And COVID-19, or its repercussions, will continue to affect global transfer of products and services, at a time when Britain’s economic relationship with Europe and the world was already heading into a state of uncertainty.

How can Platforms help? They allow us to look much closer to home, bolstering UK manufacturing and jobs at a time when we are ever more likely to need them. Working at a component level allows us to find specialist suppliers who have the manufacturing capability but haven’t necessarily engaged with the construction industry before. For example, brackets used in our Platform 2 prototype were made by a small fabrication outfit. They wouldn’t have been able to bid for a complete steel frame but could easily make the most complex and crucial components, at low cost and sub-millimetre accuracy.

By using standardised components that aren’t redesigned for every project, P-DfMA allows us to engage directly much deeper into the supply chain, and to tap into perhaps unused capacity in existing UK manufacturers. The Hub has been working hard to engage these lower tiers and bring their expertise to the surface. There are many UK factories that have the necessary elements to deliver components, but not the demand to keep operating at maximum capacity. Through Platforms we can create a network of suppliers who can manufacture the components we need, and result in short, robust supply chains.

Value is a concept that means different things to different people; but resilience of supply, reduced travel, quality assurance and regeneration of local economies must tick many people’s boxes

2. Skills

Even without COVID-19 and Brexit, we were facing a skills shortage.

P-DfMA allows us to leverage a range of tools and techniques that are easy to learn. It uses digital tools for training, augmented reality and visual method statements at the point of assembly, and colour-coded components that are self-locating and so can only be installed correctly. These techniques are already common in manufacturing.

Low-skilled operatives are, therefore, entirely able to assemble these components. When we built the Platform 1 prototype for the Ministry of Justice, for example, we employed serving prisoners (who were not skilled construction workers) to manufacture and assemble the superstructure, façade and fit out, achieving very high standards of accuracy and quality.

Given that the lack of skilled operatives in the UK is already proving a challenge (likely to be exacerbated by the post COVID-19 economy), the ability to diversify our labour pool and create new, productive jobs for prisoners, ex-prisoners, ex-services and the un- or under-employed creates another huge incentive.

3. Building safety

We have yet to see exactly what effects COVID-19 will have on safety in construction. A requirement for social distancing on sites might be one. What is key is that repeatable processes, using standard components, unlock the use of automation on site. The processes required to assemble a building in P-DfMA are modelled with the specific aim of making them safe for workers to carry out – matching the standard kit of parts to a limited number of standardised, repeated actions. These actions can be adjusted, if necessary, to allow for social distancing or other requirements. As a result, a Platform approach requires up to 75% fewer workers on site, but that is only part of the story.

Critically, Platform assembly enables us to create manufacturing conditions on site:

  • No work at height (A number of lifting and positioning tasks can be carried out using technology that’s already being used in other sectors, without the need for costly robotics or specialist equipment.)
  • No drilling
  • No need for scaffolding
  • No walking in or handling of concrete – the rebar and concrete installation process is fully automated.

This gives all on-site workers the advantage of being able to practise in safe, controlled conditions, more akin to a manufacturing site than a building site.

4. Net zero carbon

At Bryden Wood, where I am Head of Global Systems, we’re currently on site in central London with a major commercial development for Landsec, designed and built entirely using P-DfMA. The building in Sumner Street is designed to a ‘zero carbon in use’ strategy, the efficiencies and innovations inherent to P-DfMA are already achieving remarkable gains: 40% reduction in steel used; a forecast 19.4% reduction in embodied carbon per square metre, a 36.4% carbon reduction in the substructure and 20.2% in the superstructure and façade.

On traditional building sites, an unacceptable 30% of the materials brought to site end up being disposed of, because they’re cut to size on site, or quantities are estimated. Using precision-manufactured standard parts removes any requirement for on-site modification, and eliminates estimation of quantities. There is virtually no waste.

While modular construction is an appropriate solution for some schemes, entire units are assembled off-site and brought to site on trucks, meaning that most of what is being transported is the space between the walls – air, in other words. With P-DfMA, component parts are flat-packed in the most economic way possible and then assembled on site, reducing large vehicle movements to sites by up to 90%.

5. Innovation

The entire Platforms approach is based on innovation for construction projects at scale as these projects are where even marginal efficiencies and benefits are hugely amplified. It invites, makes use of and learns from innovation at every step of the design and construction journey.

It allows designers to devote their time, expertise and creativity to the areas where they will add the most value – in creating spaces where people will want to live and work. Designing with standard components allows for increased use of digital design tools, which can consider multiple design configurations to find optimal solutions. As a result, Architectural design resource is freed up from repetitive tasks and can be better deployed to add value to the scheme’s design, placemaking etc.

It will also enable the industry to benefit from continual learning and improvement; Having a standard kit of parts encourages innovation in manufacturing, as producers focus on increasing efficiency in their processes, quickly evolving secondary or derivative products, or broadening the applicability of their products. All lessons are learned and fed back into future projects, components and processes are continually improved, entering us into the virtuous cycle of progressive innovation that manufacturing benefits from.

6. Fair practices

The CLC roadmap refers to ‘fairer contractual and payment practices throughout the supply chain.’ As I’ve already described, the widespread adoption of Platforms would lead to a dispersed network of suppliers, each manufacturing standard parts to set specifications. It’s easy to conceive of a digital marketplace, with open bidding for contracts. Such a system would naturally allow for quality control across the sector, transparency in contract terms, and freedom of choice for both suppliers and purchasers.

It’s very important to know that Platforms are not proprietary technology. P-DfMA has always been developed as open source, in order to encourage the most widespread adoption and, as has been demonstrated for years by the open source coding communities, shared learning and improvements; harnessing the creativity and power of collaboration. Widespread adoption would generate plenty of business for plenty of players.

Benefits to construction

Moving to widespread adoption of P-DfMA will require some changes of attitude and practice. But while change can be uncomfortable, at the Hub we are bringing you Platform innovation that will enable the industry to strengthen and improve, with greater certainty and security.

COVID-19 should give us pause to stop and think. We had good reasons before the pandemic to examine closely how the construction industry works, and we have more reasons now. But to all the issues we face, P-DfMA offers a solution, one we know works, that the whole industry can benefit from.

So we’re on our way. I say let’s keep calm and carry on improving.


Jaimie Johnston is the Design Lead for the Construction Innovation Hub. Jaimie is also Director & Head of Global Systems at Bryden WoodHe was the author of the strategy documents ‘Delivery Platforms for Government Assets: Creating a Marketplace for Manufactured Spaces’, ‘Platforms: Bridging the gap between construction + manufacturing’ and ‘Data Driven Infrastructure: From digital tools to manufactured components’. These were adopted as a key articulation of the government’s aspiration to adopt a more manufacturing-led approach to construction, reflected in the Infrastructure and Project Authority’s – proposed adoption of a Platform approach to Design for Manufacture and Assembly.