Speaking at an industry event, Amy Marks offered her insights into the state of modern construction.

Marks made a compelling case for clients to rethink how they buy their construction projects in future.

Marks is the president of US-based XSite construction consulting, but her work now covers many markets. She is an international member of the Singapore Government’s Building Construction Authority (BCA) and advises on how the Singapore industry might implement their Construction Productivity Roadmap. BCA’s vision is to realise a highly integrated and technologically advanced construction sector led by progressive firms and supported by a skilled competent workforce by 2020 through a four-pronged approach which includes:

  • Imposing regulatory requirements and minimum standards to drive widespread adoption of labour-saving technology
  • Enhancing the quality of the construction workforce
  • Offering financial incentives to encourage manpower development, technology adoption and capability building
  • Regulating the demand and supply of low cost, lower skilled foreign workforce through foreign worker levy system

Marks spoke of a new wave of construction productivity and of customers wanting to avoid the waste and excessive cost of construction contracts in the US. The common response then is, “how do I do that?” They get it. Her starting point for projects is what she calls Moment Zero. If clients are not prepared to reset the direction of their projects at this point, they will be destined to what they always have got.

When working with clients, construction consultants should not seek to displace anyone at the table be they designer, contractor or supplier. To continue to sit at the table, however, team members must be able to establish clarity about their value proposition, how that works with integrated procurement and the impact on project cost. It’s all about establishing rule clarity across the entire project team and ensuring a project continuum is maintained. It’s also about applying practical industry knowledge to better ways of organising work and constructing on-site. It’s a global trend.

Marks describes the emergence of new Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) construction contracts which cut through the old project hierarchies and disconnects. These contracts set up a systems approach which analyse how project elements fit into the construction sequence. The key is not trying to do it all in one step.

“Best to start with small buildings blocks and develop from there over time” she said.

This new style of contracting arrangement feeds into what Marks describes as Modern Methods of Construction (MMC). Here, Marks makes an important distinction between the roles of BIM and Designed for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA). BIM can be an off-site enabling tool but designers need to adopt the practice of knowing how they will source what they are drawing and ensure “fit” confidence on-site. DfMA is the key driver of these capabilities.

Using a combination of IPD, DfMA and MMC, the construction procurement and delivery process becomes more efficient and predictable. Marks pointed to Boeing and the design and procurement of the modern jet airliner. It would be inconceivable for a Boeing design engineer to start drawing any part of an airplane without having a clear idea of who the suppliers were and how the parts would come together. Marks stresses that there are no vendor preferences. Suppliers have to demonstrate value-add every time. It’s very dynamic; the process drives innovation and attacks waste.

Of course, MMC feeds into much more of the construction process occurring off-site and the incorporation of intelligent materials, components, sub-assemblies and modules. Marks is aware of the slow rate of development of the off-site industry in Australia. She makes the point that irrespective of how the construction off-site momentum gathers in Australia, the prefabrication hub now forming across Singapore, China and Malaysia is like a small Silicon Valley full of very innovative companies.

Marks also spoke about a challenge common in developed countries – that of ensuring experienced construction workforces could maintain active working lives as they age. In the US, offsite is providing job continuity for older workers and creating new opportunities for women and veterans in a market where skill shortages are growing.

Marks makes no apologies that the residual work on construction sites will become much more assembly orientated, just as it has in every industry that has undergone these changes. She can speak to more rewarding, skilled, safer, higher quality and less exposed construction work on site in the future.

“Stop snapping chalk lines on-site” she said.

In the US, onsite workforces are costing upwards of $75/hr. These are tough jobs and are exposed to project economic cycles.

“But it’s not the money, it’s the work rules on site that are unsustainable” said Marks.

Off-site, the workforce becomes more multi-skilled, is more productive under better conditions and enjoys higher job continuity prospects. Off-site labour costs are closer to $35/hr, but the trade-offs would seem worthwhile. In the US, unions are taking positive interest in these trends, just as they are taking an interest in their members’ interests to help keep jobs stateside. Marks emphasises that all of construction’s stakeholders are in the same productivity boat together.