A recently published research report by Southeast University in China in conjunction with the University of Newcastle investigated barriers in China to a broader take up of offsite and modular construction, now more generically termed modern methods of construction (MMC).
The report concluded that greater adoption of this technology is being directly limited by the architectural profession, whose ‘’traditional thinking patterns’’ are not suited to a design methodology required for the workflow of offsite construction.
China is arguably a world leader for project efficiency and scale, having scaled up development and construction over the past 20 years at a speed and scope that we in Australia can barely imagine. So research into the limiting factors on MMC in China leads to questions about the applicability of the report’s arguments to our industry here.
This report is not the first time the premise that architects are somehow deficient in dealing with MMC processes has appeared. But whether the argument has merit is up for debate. Effective offsite modular construction does not simply involve manufacturing, but encompasses the entire design/procurement/delivery continuum. It's also true that up-front planning for how a building is to be delivered is essential to maximising efficiency of the procurement supply chain. But architects provide only one (albeit pivotal), of many inputs.
The research report asserts that the traditional architectural design approach follows directly in the Beaux-Arts tradition, with the goal that each building is essentially designed as a unique work of art. It emphasises the benefit of an alternative so-called “building product” mode of design, explaining the difference as a philosophical distinction in the way design is undertaken - where architects are trained to better prepare their documents to inform an industrial product supply chain, dependent on factory procurement and product-based delivery.
No one can disagree with the principle that professional training should keep up with technological innovation within the industry. Disruptions periodically occur which demand new skills and training to meet a changing environment. Commercialised offsite construction is perhaps undergoing such a disruption, and the architectural profession needs to keep abreast of it.
But whilst architects and their architectural vision should be cognizant of the workflow underlying implementation from drawings to end products, the report's authors' claim that “many architects realize that they are gradually losing control of projects because their knowledge and educational background are limited to traditional design and construction approaches” is highly debatable.
Offsite fabrication of building components per se is neither new nor revolutionary. The concrete industry for instance surged after the innovation of precast panels, which dates back to 1905. Particularly in façade design, the innate plasticity of factory pre-cast concrete has enabled many highlights of C20 and C21 architecture. But in recent years, panel and component manufacturing using new composites, steel and timber has been developed to a point of industrial efficiency that has driven explosive worldwide growth. Architects have relied on industry R&D and education to develop solutions to design intent and inform them of new products and methods.
To remove barriers blocking greater use of new products and modularised components, industry must target their marketing to the disciplines at the top of the decision making tree. Contemporary project initiation, programming and planning is increasingly in the hands of development managers and project managers. It is the development manager who writes the services scope and engages the project architects, as well as the engineers, certifiers and others members of the consultant team. It is these managers who drive budgets, monitor costs and prepare financial feasibility studies.
If industry educates development and project managers such that MMC techniques are recognized at the project inception stage for the time and cost savings they offer, then team choices of appropriate skill sets can be made with these goals in mind. So in many ways, the decisions on skill sets, team members and project scope made at project inception, are going to be the key influencers of procurement and delivery success.
For example, given the recent publicity of new structural framing codes, including the use of timber for multi-storey structures, most development and project managers should now be aware of the palette of options available. It is their choices, and the instructions that they give to their design teams, that are pivotal to the use and success of MMC procurement.
Similar to the skills evolution that occurred as traditional masonry construction gave way to steel frame and pre-cast concrete structures in the early C20, when architects, engineers and other consultants realise that market opportunities await those with the knowledge and experience to design and deliver new MMC technologies, they will inevitably up-skill so as to not miss out.