Offsite construction is the solution to construction's remote working challengePrior to the current pandemic, construction was often described as a traditional industry. While that might be true of some players, there are clear leaders who are driving innovation in the built environment sector.
In this second interview with senior industry figures, we explore what the sector is doing to adapt and where innovation will come from.
EDC is a progressive mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) design and engineering company, working in a range of construction sectors from residential, commercial, industrial, pharmaceutical, retail, hospitality & leisure. Managing director Richard O’Farrell is no stranger to innovation. The company pioneered 3D modelling more than fifteen years ago and was the first company in Ireland and the UK to achieve level 2 BIM certification over five years ago. We asked Richard what changes he sees across the industry in response to the Covid-19 lockdown:
“The big change I see is the number of meetings. COVID has forced the industry into using online tools, such as Zoom or Teams. Most of our colleagues used Teams before, but now the whole company is using it. There's numerous tools to facilitate remote workers and different team members collaborating, which in some cases are even better than being in the same office. So we’ve found that 95% of our staff have been unaffected really, in terms of productivity. The only people who are struggling are those with limited physical space at home to create a workspace or who have limited broadband capability where they're living.”
Sometimes in the past EDC found teams working across its three offices through Ireland and the UK might experience artificial barriers. Particularly if employees from another office were supporting a team used to sitting and working together every day. Now that everyone is remote working, those perceived barriers have fallen away, boosting collaboration.
When the lockdown happened, sites were closed in Ireland and distancing measures implemented in the UK, people observed that construction is one industry that couldn’t work remotely. But Richard doesn’t agree. Looking forward he says;
“I expect the number of face to face meetings you have to travel for will be cut in half. A lot of EDC’s work is pre-construction. But even when we go to site to do inspections, we’ll use GoPro cameras more.”
EDC is always looking to find new ways of doing things but it’s important that the end result works for the client. They’re not interested in innovation for innovation’s sake.
“We’ve always been trying to find tools and ways of visually drawing clients to buildings and help them understand what's happening… We have tools where we send simple, visual links to our clients. They don't need any particular high tech software or machines to view the 3D models that we give them.”
It’s important to EDC that clients are able to access the work easily, without needing to have advanced technology or skills.
“You need to find a simple way of letting them visually see it…, We've used Oculus Rift technology. But to be honest, you're better off finding something on the screen. Something that can be seen on a phone or tablet… because the HoloLens technology - while it's there, it isn't there yet for everyone.”
Looking to the future, we asked what would be the one thing he’d change to drive innovation in the industry. Richard’s answer was clear: offsite construction.
It’s not a new phenomenon. EDC sees offsite construction happening on around a quarter of projects. There has formerly been a small premium to be paid for offsite construction, but now that we’re dealing with COVID, the balance of cost versus benefit has tipped in favour of offsite. For Richard the benefits are huge.
It’s easier to distance if you’re working in a larger space, making working in a factory environment safer. City sites come with challenges around space, access and services. Offsite construction means you can reduce the number of people on site. And when you do get on site, the job is more simple - so you can build faster.
“Now we have a new challenge where we have limited working environments or more strict-to-work-in environments. So offsite construction can be a big solution. And that, for me, is the biggest game changer. “