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The future of on-site construction

Over the next year, industry watchers should expect to see a new piece of construction kit creeping into construction rental fleets. Known as Smart Site Hubs, they will redefine the construction narrative as the on-site workplace changes to incorporate more off-site fabrication and factory-led innovations to change the way buildings are made, assembled and operated.


Announcing the launch of a design and manufacturing challenge like none before … “to help change the face of construction management on-site, one site shed at a time…”

Smart Site Hubs

Next month a group of leading construction management academics from universities in Australia and New Zealand have been invited to join a roundtable to be hosted by Western Sydney University’s Centre for Smart Modern Construction. They will be invited to share their views on what a modern construction workplace might look like by 2025 and to help imagine how on-site work will be managed, procured and undertaken once more than half of construction fabrication performed on-site today moves off-site.

They will also help to establish the criteria for a competition to design and make a new Smart Site Hub (SSH) that will be the first of a new breed of site sheds that will have wide impact – and not just on the first projects where they appear. As the embodiment of a new modern construction ecosystem that is connected, collaborative and effective, they will have much to say about traditional construction chaos being left behind, and will become evidence for the next generation of constructors that real change is happening.

Why it’s time to challenge construction’s on-site business-as-usual syndrome

The industry’s next generation of construction talent typically spends a year or two on building sites to cut their teeth and learn from experienced practitioners about the realities of the business. It’s no wonder that no one really imagines much changing, since there, they can only learn to expect more of the same. This is understandable, since life at the blunt end of construction remains pretty much the way it’s always been. Most construction workers feel disconnected from any opportunity to influence change upstream.

Despite all the new technologies and examples of modern construction shown to the industry’s cadets and apprentices during formal training, their daily grind reinforces a reality that contains poorly coordinated design, moderations to remedy inter-discipline mistakes, neglect of planning conditions or standards, disruptions to supply chains, trade-skill shortages, delays due to weather, and, of course, their own – often undetected – mistakes.

The site shed exhibited above is typical of most. However, in this instance there were a few notable project differences that should be highlighted. The design was achieved using BIM (Building Information Modeling), and the project was translated into a Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) platform. Approximately 60 per cent of the physical build comprises off-site components manufactured in Europe, shipped – fully made with fitments, penetrations and lifting points – to a local staging warehouse.

Essentially it was a “project in a box” and it is currently a month away from completion. There are over 300 variations, mostly related to unresolved design, coordination and local compliance issues. The project had a great design story, however, translation of this into the build seems to have lost something along the way.

Whereas the site team have done a pretty good job under challenging circumstances, the point to be made here is that an attentive cadet or apprentice would have missed the opportunity to experience the potential of off-site construction manufacture (OSCM) to make a difference on this site.

This is not the only project with a similar story. Business as usual reigns.

This is the typical sort of place where construction cadets and apprentices learn to accept business as usual as the predictor of the future: and it has to change. Image supplied by the author.

The changing construction ecosystem

Yet the construction ecosystem is redefining itself rapidly as new technologies and an increasing number of off-site manufacturers mature their business capabilities and value propositions. The industry is now observing a new phenomenon whereby some suppliers of high value off-site fabricated inputs are now sharing the early contractor engagement stage. This is disrupting the traditional roles of designers, constructors, trades-based subcontractors, and suppliers of low value-add material inputs.

modern construction chart

Chart by David Chandler

The conversation about Off-Site Construction Manufacture (OSCM) and its barriers has largely been focused off-site until now. There are many arguments given as to why OSCM is running into barriers, centring on the lack of preparedness of construction customers to adopt Early Contractor Engagement (ECE), the wide gaps between BIM and DfMA technologies as projects make their way to the factory processes, and the immature nature of many OSCM enterprises, who seem to offer smart solutions which, in the end, come up short.

The promises of OSCM thus remain elusive. The purpose of the c4SMC Inter-University Roundtable is to discuss these issues and to develop the next Joining up Construction conversation that could benefit the industry and help to turn around business as usual.

Recent developments

Clients are steadily forming the view that the future delivery of their services, and the facilities needed to deliver them, will depend on smarter ways of specifying, procuring, making, assuring and operating buildings. At the same time, clients are being challenged to re-appraise their own business models as they realise that the future built-world will need to be more agile, adaptable, sustainable and smarter. Buildings are getting smarter and how they are made also needs to be smarter. The Internet of Things (IoT) will have a lot to do with this, but so will new technologies such as big data, blockchain and artificial intelligence.

All clients of the modern construction industry could achieve more for less as the forces of rising construction costs, skills shortages and uncertain industry performance play out. Some of the smarter clients are getting serious about challenging business as usual. They have no choice, for many of today’s industry practices are unsustainable.

Concurrently, the task of procuring new buildings from many sources – and increasingly through global supply chains – throws up more challenges. These include: regulatory compliance, logistics, off-site payments, technology integration, lowering carbon emissions and ethical sourcing.

With this background, the conversation now returns to the question of what happens on a construction site when over 50 per cent of what is fabricated on-site today is transferred off-site? Few in the industry have given much attention to this, but momentum is clearly gathering pace. The implications will be profound. The challenges will include:

  • How will construction defined by traditional trade measure, and procurement be redefined, to reflect the residual work soon to be performed on-site?
  • How will the residual work be packaged and organised?
  • What new skills will be required for construction managers and the workforce?
  • How will the regulators of construction prepare and become future-ready?
  • What will the primary functions of a head contractor be like as assembly of OSCM on-site progressively outweighs traditional work?
  • What will be the impact of new technology and tools that modernise old processes?
  • How can a future of construction narrative for on-site be developed to embrace smarter, better, faster, safer, more compliant, more resilient, less wasteful and cheaper – at least 50 per cent faster and progressively 30 per cent cheaper?
  • And, when will the next generation of construction cadets and apprentices see evidence that business as usual will not constrain the potential of their future career trajectories?construction

Where to from here for designers, head contractors, subcontractors, OSCM suppliers and new startups?

One of the main constraints holding back OSCM momentum is a lack of vision of how the future construction worksite will function and what this means for a head contractor. For the purpose of this conversation readers are asked to consider:

  • Most construction projects are valued at under $50 million. It is possible that the first movers to adapt to a new construction frontier will be agile small- and medium-sized enterprises and change will not first be universal or require unanimous agreement by the whole of the industry. These changes will not be regulation driven
  • More head contracts will involve the management of Design Development and Construction (DDC) having been awarded following less than 10 per cent concept design
  • Contractors will increasingly manage the entire procurement of the OSCM inputs and assume responsibility for completing documentation, manufacture and project integration. That integration will flow into fitness for purpose and maintenance
  • At least 50 per cent of the previous on-site trades’ fabrications may become part of the OSCM process, while the residual work involves sequential elemental packages
  • The traditional challenges of poor design and construction co-ordination should have passed, to enable the expectation that their resolution on-site is no longer required
  • Contractors will integrate the quality assurance processes of OSCM into a continuum that is enabled by modern technologies to flow through to the on-site work, commissioning, building acceptance, payment and smart life-cycle functions
  • The generation of construction waste as a result of traditional on-site construction fabrication processes no longer being performed, is reduced by at least 80 per cent
  • The wider construction industry experiences of injury both on- and off-site will be reduced by 80 per cent and the prospect of zero construction deaths will define new work practices

In this context, the role of the modern head contractor will require comprehensive re-imagination, definition and new capabilities. The following scenario has been offered for discussion at the roundtable, in which the principal residual on-site functions for a head contractor will primarily be:

  • Risk management, assurance, technology and communications continuity
  • Logistics, work flow co-ordination and sequential possessions of sites for elemental work packages that would be performed by multi-skilled self-managing teams
  • Being the prime responsible person on-site under the OH&S regulations, assuring site access is limited to those properly prepared and authorised
  • Providing a shared site office hub that enables both off-site and on-site management to connect by engaging seamlessly during the performance on-site
  • Dealing with payments and executing change management where required.

In this scenario, a modern site-facing contractor will have exercised most of their service and risk management value proposition before actual work starts on-site. It is possible that some contractors will have few direct employees on-site, enabling a substantially different construction setting. This would result in a major reallocation of time-related on-site overheads and infrastructure to occur for just the periods necessary – mostly by others.

The above scenario will have implications for educators and regulators of construction. These insights would enable organisations like TAFE to reweight their vocational and technical education offerings to support a modern construction industry. They will also be of benefit to regulators like the Building Professionals Board and SafeWork NSW as they come to terms with overseeing the performance, licensing and accountabilities of modern constructors and the workforce. These may feed into a new modern construction contract.

The potential of this industry collaboration seems endless, as the “joining up construction conversation” broadens and becomes more inclusive.

The Inter-University Roundtable will provide an opportunity for each participant to share their insights and to challenge various scenario as a consensus position evolves.

The objectives, rules, sponsors and prizes for the Smart Site Hub – SSH design and manufacture challenge will be announced in February 2019. The first SSH is expected to be on-site later next year to begin changing the face of construction – one site shed at a time.

David Chandler OAM, FAIB is the principal of CE Advisory and industry engagement lead at the Centre for Smart Construction (c4SMC) at the Western Sydney University (WSU). Professor Srinath Perera is the director of the Centre for Smart Modern Construction at WSU.


The Fifth Estate invites other thinkers to contribute to this topic. Send articles or flag ideas to editorial@thefifthestate.com.au

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Comments

2 Responses to “The future of on-site construction”

  • Matt Stevens says:

    There is just a small push needed to move past the tipping point. It is a good time to be in construction.

  • Rodney Harvey says:

    Hi David,
    I have undertaken in the last 7 years off site prefabrication for what we call in New Zealand Transportable Dental Clinics.
    I have photos and plans of the off site construction process of components from start in the engineering shops and subsequent deliveries of other plant and materials into the contractors main offsite production shop.
    I have programmes in MPP on the phases and Kahoot Quizzes indeed Power Point Lectures on how we assembled the dental clinics off site and the revealing fact off off site construction is that it involves radically leaving the conventional wisdom of on site programme management and instead embracing the extraordinary phenomena of an offsite programme. Being offsite, by its very nature, is not only forgiving of weather but is incredibly stimulating due to its stakeholders who now all have time to review, model, rethink, vary and to perfect their building without being punished by additional costs or worse, liquidated damages.

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