British construction workers are around 20% less productive than their counterparts in France and Germany, according to the latest numbers from the Office for National Statistics.
This is likely to have an effect on a sector which urgently needs to build at scale to meet political ambitions. Chancellor Philip Hammond announced a £44bn package in the autumn Budget with the aim of ramping up house building to 300,000 new homes a year by the middle of the next decade.
In March Homes England chief executive Nick Walkley called this target an “economic indicator” and a means to manage house pricing inflation, adding the “housing crisis” was making life difficult for families across the country.
The UK has not built 300,000 homes a year since the 1970s, however. Then, a large chunk were built by councils.
According to at least four construction experts who have spoken with LGC, it is not likely to be possible to build at that scale now for two reasons, which incidentally feed into one another.
Firstly, comes the impending economic disruption likely to be caused by Brexit. Tony Pidgley, chair of the developer Berkeley Group, told LGC of his fears over losing European workers. “There is a problem of labour and skills - 60% of my labour comes out of Europe… and if they go home then we will have a problem,” said Mr Pidgley.
The other problem is a national shortage of skills and training. The Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development, the professional body for HR managers, warned last year that the UK is “sleepwalking into a low-value, low-skills economy post-Brexit”.
One solution for the construction sector to both problems lies in off-site construction - the process of designing and manufacturing structures away from the building site. Machines and robots are used to build homes as though they were cars, helping increase speed and quality.
Mark Reynolds of construction firm Mace Group told a Lords committee on 1 May that off-site construction “could contribute to a 50% increase in productivity”. Historically, off-site construction has not taken off as it has not been seen as “commercially viable”, Mr Reynolds said.
But that appears to be changing with a huge rise in the number of house factories, especially in the south-east of England.
One example of an off-site factory is NU Build, part of Swan housing association. Built out of a high-tech factory in Basildon, Essex, employing 40 highly trained people, NU Build can deliver up to 400 bespoke homes a year. In Kent, Berkeley Homes is building a factory that, when finished, will employ 100 trained workers to produce up to 1,000 new homes a year.
Mr Pidgeley said: “The only reason I’m nervous is being a builder all my life and understanding building inside out, I’m not used to robots.”
The rise of the robots
Apis Cor 3D printer
Working alone, a human bricklayer can lay between 300 and 500 bricks a day, whereas a robotic Semi-Automatic Mason unit can lay up to 1,200 a day.
Mark Farmer, CEO of Cast Consultancy, is an avid campaigner for increasing technology in construction and was the lead author of a 2016 review of the UK construction sector, titled “Modernise or die”. Mr Farmer has warned of an “inexorable decline” if technology and training are not addressed.
“We’re still building homes as we did a hundred years ago,” Mr Farmer said, and added: “Fully embracing offsite manufacturing and digital construction has the potential to transform the construction industry.”
This is not a lesson that applies only to industry and the private sector. Mr Farmer said: “Local government needs to start future-proofing itself now essentially - especially on technology. The public will always want value for money from its taxes and we’re talking about tens of billions of pounds of taxpayer savings that can come out of digitisation.”
3D printed house in central Milan
Machines are now producing structures in concrete and steel that remove many limitations on architects. Examples of their use include 3D printed homes, such as the one showcased in Milan, Italy, last month and schools built in hard-to-reach locations in China in a matter of weeks with just a skeleton staff.
According to consultancy firm McKinsey, the bulk of growth in off-site construction is happening in Asia with the UK lagging behind. However, McKinsey’s report ’Artificial intelligence: Construction technology’s next frontier’, published last month, said “a shift is coming” in the sector.
“Stakeholders across the project lifecycle - including contractors, operators, owners, and service providers - can no longer afford to conceive of [artificial intelligence] as technology that’s pertinent only to other industries,” the report said.
In England the majority of this movement is being witnessed in the capital where the majority of off-site construction factories are. The Greater London Authority wants to build 65,000 new homes a year, a number officers have confirmed could only ever be reached through a “significant increase” in off-site construction.
To widen this approach across the nation will require training and infrastructure.
Mr Walkley, speaking at a Local Government Association housing summit in March, warned there is “a crisis in our aging construction workforce, with 20-40% retiring in the near future”. To counteract this councils need to start taking action now, he said.
“You have to be clear about what skills you need and where you are going to get them from - you need a plan” Mr Walkley said. “Places without a plan are vulnerable.”