Over a year on from the first lockdown, Paul Ruddick, CEO at Reds10, asks what lessons UK construction has learnt from the pandemic, as the industry strives to return to some sort of normality.
It is a year on from the first lockdown due to Covid-19 and we have heard repeatedly that the pandemic will be the perfect catalyst for change. Yet 12 months later the construction sector is pretty much in the same state battling the same issues – a fragmented ecosystem, poor working conditions, and a negative contribution to the climate change crisis. Add to that, we are currently facing a wave of economic, political and market uncertainties, putting our sector in an even more precarious situation than at the start.
The reality is the sector hasn’t budged because it’s been all talk and no action. A survey by RLB in February showed, despite concerns over shortages of materials and labour, 113 main contractors said MMC take up had only gone up 2% since 2019. The use of BIM is only “creeping up” at tender stage too and the ‘Construction 2025’ report noted that two-thirds of construction contracting firms are not being innovative enough and are halting technological progress within the sector.
Many contractors are slow or ill-equipped to adapt to MMC or simply don’t want to change. But this is not the answer, not least because clients are demanding something different. Increasingly, they want high-quality, low carbon, low maintenance, agile and resilient buildings, and without the fuss that comes with procuring, commissioning and operating them. Not just that, but the necessity for buildings to meet changing legislative requirements, such as net-zero carbon, means an entirely different delivery model for construction is needed.
The Government’s Construction Playbook published last year was a gamechanger. It stipulates that all Central Government departments and their arm’s length bodies must follow its strategy to build back faster and greener on a ‘comply or explain’ basis. Crucially, the playbook defines the delivery partner of the future and it’s ideal for agile, born-digital, vertically integrated modular contractors like Reds10. The new UK Infrastructure Bank and creation of an MMC task force announced in last month’s Budget shows the Government is wasting no time in preparing for the post-Covid-19 era.
Reds10’s recent work on the Ministry for Defence’s Net Carbon Accommodation Programme (NetCAP), delivering new carbon-efficient accommodation blocks across the UK Training Estate showcases exactly why MMC can help us achieve these new targets. Not only were we able to deliver the blocks at Westdown Camp and Nesscliff Training Camp in record time, but we were able to do so more efficiently and sustainably. The manufacture and installation process for the prototype block at Westdown Camp, took just 15 weeks, and the team was then able to implement lessons learned there to reduce this to 13 weeks for three buildings at Nesscliff.
This short timeframe minimised disruption for training troops, while labour was locally sourced, reducing the carbon footprint and helping to boost local economies by providing 400 jobs, 150 of which were new. Further, by using MMC and data from SMART technology installed in our buildings, we were able to improve on the original design, meaning the buildings at Nesscliff achieved net-zero carbon (EPC rating -5) and a 30% reduction of embodied carbon compared to Westdown Camp. The programme will run into early 2022 and is set to deliver further improvements on some of these figures.
There is a long way to go but as we mark one year since the start of the pandemic, we need to acknowledge that our world today is drastically different. So, let’s get on with it. Let’s change our behaviour and embrace the inevitable shift towards off-site construction with open arms, giving it the momentum it needs to transform our industry for a sustainable future. Those who want to drag their feet will surely get left behind and face an uncertain future.