Off-site manufacture and construction (OSCM) is at the heart of the modern construction industry, and today’s architects are facing more challenges than ever before.

Many architects realize they are gradually losing control of projects. Architects often focus on design but lack practical experience in manufacturing, construction and have limited financial (transactional) knowledge. These shortcomings restrict their decision-making abilities. It is hard to change their designs once construction procurement and fabrication has commenced.


Architects used to be recognized as the first specifiers in the construction supply chain. Other specifiers acted as “service departments” for architects. Traditional construction has accommodated relatively strong error-tolerance. Architects have been able to fix problems after they occur on construction sites. This “build-and-fix” model challenges architects to demonstrate their talents and abilities. The supply chain is accustomed to this and architects are accustomed to resolving problems as they occur. Although this looks like team cooperation, the truth is it is architect-centric. This culture and these processes may not survive in modern construction.

The increasing complexity of modern buildings, the increasing number of construction functions they contain, and the public’s increased awareness of sustainable development challenges the status quo. This highlights the development of new construction-related technologies and new collaboration relationships. Construction processes have become more complicated, unreliable, unquantifiable, unpredictable, fragmented, unique and repetitive.

It is time to end the era of “individualistic heroism” and establish real cooperative relationships between different sectors of the construction industry.

According to the head of an architecture school in China, “Today’s architects are in an awkward position. We are not as free as real artists because we need to be restricted by rationality derived from design skills. We are not as technical as other engineers because the discipline character and educational background make us so. We need to relocate our position and rethink what responsibilities we should really take.”

This may mean reasserting leadership, or it may be something else.

It is time to put customers first. Architects sometimes instinctively stress their concepts and professional suggestions to their customers. This is understandable on landmark or public buildings which require impressive ideas to represent images of cities or countries. We need these buildings and the master architects that design them. However, most buildings in cities are residential buildings. They are conventional structures that should prioritize clients’ comfort. The reality is that most residential buildings are over-designed by architects. They hope their work will be recognizable, thereby improving their reputation and future prospects.

This phenomenon has been described as an “architectural work” mode by an academic in an architecture school in China. He argued that “architects design buildings according to customer requests adopting traditional design methods based on architects’ personal professional skills and talent. This design method derives from the old architectural education system including Ecole des Beaux-Arts. The same customer requests may result in various designs by different architects. Most architects treat their designs as works of art which can be highly recognizable. The buildings are unique and cannot be duplicated.”

He concluded that most architects adopt this approach – it is their creed. They have balanced art and technology, spatiality and buildability, design and construction for hundreds of years.

“It is not easy to think out of the box and break the routine. From this perspective of architects’ creed, it is difficult to put customers in front and streamline the entire construction supply chain,” he said.

Although some architects have started to learn from the manufacturing industry and see buildings as manufactured products, customization is inevitable and is itself a design activity trapped in the “architectural work” mode. No matter how they grapple with these challenges, or adopt manufacturing knowledge to design buildings, most architects are still enslaved to an “architectural work” mode that highlights their personal talents. This is an endless cycle.

The current challenge is not how to build or get information. It is how to enable cooperative work by allowing every sector to access database information on the same platform. BIM, for example, is a container and tool for managing information, but we also need to identify the principles we need to follow so as to use this correctly and effectively. Otherwise all the sectors will be confused and the information will be meaningless. More importantly, we need to establish the order and rules to inform standard platforms, databases and principles for every sector in a modern construction industry.

Architects may need to be reeducated to address these challenges. Pinning hopes on an outdated architectural creed is a weak strategy. Modern architects will require order and rules mainly for (but not limited to) their profession, manufacturers and constructors. On the one hand, these guidelines can help architects enhance their designs and guarantee smooth implementation, thereby satisfying their customers. They will also assist in the project phases such us manufacture, delivery, construction and maintenance.

In the broader products industry, clients are likely to have more products to choose from and more opportunities to select them. Products will be eliminated if they are not accepted by the market. So, what will happen if we transfer the “architectural work” mode to a “building products” mode and change architects to product engineers?

In a “building products” mode, architects treat their designs as industrial products. They incorporate customer requests into feasible and rational implementations, from drawings to end products. Such buildings will attract the attributes of other industrial products.  Pragmatic architects are likely to prioritize improved customer experience and smooth implementation in future work instead of highlighting their designs as works of art. Based on this mode, this process will transform personal design to product development. The buildings can be duplicated in some cases and mass customized fabrication may be feasible.

Would significantly increasing the industrial component content of buildings offer more valuable and better services to clients? If so, designers need to acquire additional know-how and develop new skills.

Given the challenges outlined above, I believe a new OSCM order is needed to define the rules for off-site construction manufacture and on-site assembly. These rules would apply to the sequences necessary to combine the different components of buildings, and to inform the building products and assembly methods to bring those building components together. Discovering the order and rules necessary to maximize value to end customers should be measurable and help make real OSCM cooperative work possible. This seems to be the missing piece in the OSCM puzzle to date.

To answer these challenges, a series of investigations of off-site manufacture (OSM) buildings is being undertaken using a case study approach. Essentially, prefabricated buildings (PBs) represent the assembly of various prefabricated components (PCs). Building form generation can be seen as a combination of methods. The fact is that all buildings come from the combination of design drawings and basic components.

If we follow this approach, pathways may become clearer enabling sectors to reposition themselves and find new business opportunities.

Written by Jianing Luo, School of Architecture and Built Environment – University of Newcastle