Get excited! Here is the British Construction Industry’s answer to the macho modernism of Elon Musk’s cool planes trains and automobiles!
“Modernise or Die!” is what Mark Farmer and Mace’s Dick Elsy have again been calling for from the UK Government. This month they have been in formal discussions with the Government’s Science and Technology Committee to demand a reaction to the 2017 Farmer Review promoting their plans for greater efficiency in the construction industry. The whole meeting had a faint air that Farmer still hopes to be to Construction, what Ford was to the Motor Industry in the 20s.
He speaks of incredible time, cost and quality saving initiatives to deliver perfect buildings every time. It is a solution to reduce trucks on the roads by 60%, produce 90% less waste and the creation of a new digitally skilled workforce to tackle the chronic skills shortage we are suffering. This offsite manufacture would lead to production lines churning out buildings at the same speed and efficiency as Apple produces smartphones and Tesla produces cars. He spoke about taking school kids to see robots building complex chunks of architecture and of factories that had more in common with space rocket facilities and futuristic car production lines than workshops. This sounds incredible.
However, there are drawbacks already beginning to emerge with the excitement over this factory based delivery method. During the discussion, Farmer made reference to the success and bold moves of property group Berkely Homes with their new Offsite factory in the eastern hinterlands of London. The group plan to deliver its latest high-density home typology “The Urban House” from this facility. Here we have Architecture as a placeless “product.” Here, we build 300,000 high-quality identical homes then wait for the next upgrade to improve and tweak the product, maybe The Urban House 2G/3G/5S (or whatever). It appears Berkley’s factory has neglected the crucial difference between the process of designing spaces and that of manufacturing cool modern transport and technology.
The difference here is the ability to adapt. The building process has to be able to flex and change at short notice to every weird quirk that the site and inhabitants have. No two places are the same, no people have the same requirements. Up until now this is what the entire construction industry has excelled at, fast in-the-moment decisions and reactions to the vast number of incredibly complex and unique problems each site throws up (while always keeping the project moving to its programme). The answer, up until now, has been constant collaboration and tweaks driven by open-minded confidence and the skill to react to problems with the design on the go.
Farmer’s analogy to other modern industry falls further apart here with the problem of ill-suited ‘sameness’. Identical manufactured smartphones deal with this sameness by having an eclectic and open source selection of apps to reflect all our varying needs. Cars deal with this sameness by being able to drive you to unique places at the driver’s whim. Here, Sameness in all our buildings leads to bland streets and bland lives for the coming centuries.
There is the design life to consider as well with Farmer’s analogy with other industries. Automobile and technology products are rarely owned for longer than a few years as our styles and needs change. Houses and communities are forever- or good ones should be! This Offsite process forgets that the manufacture and delivery time of a building is such a small percentage of the building’s whole life and is such a small part of the building’s whole lifetime value.
While Offsite as a process is great, the Farmer Review hints at a future rigidity to our buildings that sacrifices the ability to change and morph to inhabitants’ complex needs. Don’t forget that cars only exist for a fleeting decade, whereas our houses and homes last a century and beyond. They can’t have the same flippant and placeless macho modernism of the Elon Musks and Henry Fords of this world.
Jake Aiken Winter May 2018