Make fewer concessions. Start designing with a system in mind

As a designer, you consider a world of possible designs and choose which one best realises your vision for the building. Other parties work within your framework, manufacturing the components, erecting the structure, integrating its services and constructing a safe and sturdy building, adapting it where necessary to the idiosyncrasies of the site.

However, this is where the divergence occurs; things get value engineered out and compromises are made in the interests of cost or feasibility perhaps caused by conflicting interests and a limitation of foresight. Then there’s the performance gap between as-designed and as-built. Nonetheless, something gets lost along the way. You design something and then someone else comes along and builds it. To some extent… they get the last say.

If the result somehow falls short, you can feel that your original design work was disregarded. Reduced to purely aesthetic ideals. You might start questioning, is it always inevitable that your designs will be vulnerable to severe compromise at any moment by the design and construction process?

Then there’s the effect of the future, the evolution of the construction industry as we know it. Hi-tech production lines now take construction from the building site to highly controlled factory environments overseen by professional technicians, for reasons of speed, quality, safety and the unpredictability of on-site labour and materials supply. Through technology, mass production has become mass customisation. Consistent and precise results are able to be produced, whilst having the flexibility to create the bespoke elements that can make a real difference to the feel and function of the built-environment.

The concepts of lean manufacturing and mass customisation emerged in the 1990s as the business strategies of the future, promising infinite variability whilst at the same time reducing cost. This trend recently has become even more evident with the development of 3D consumer printing technology. Now, it is through recent developments in CNC drill technology driven by the latest industry-leading software where these concepts are seeing their fruition. Not since the invention of the Gutenburg printing press has there been such a milestone of mass production joining forces with freedom of expression. Now it is being applied to the built-environment.

Prefabrication - Modern methods of construction - SIP infill wrap to steel framePrefabrication was once associated with generic standardised box like modules lacking both imagination and utility. But off-site construction has entered a new paradigm. ‘Flatpack Volumetric’ for example, aims to take the best of both worlds by being able to incorporate the standardised elements that enable cost savings and significant speed benefits. It does this by using highly engineered structural insulated panels as the building components, designed and engineered bespoke for each application and delivered flatpack to the construction site.

They are able to adapt better to on-site conditions than volumetric, with less up-front design work. By their flexible flatpack nature and the compactness of their structural and thermal properties – they liberate design, becoming the building blocks for a wide range of structural and infill applications.

Whilst this approach seems a possible panacea to the ailment currently affecting the construction industry, namely where serving the housing and education needs of an increasing population needs to be balanced with the sustainability agenda, the great potential this approach offers is in danger of being muted by a traditional mindset still prevalent within the industry.

What does this mean for architects and designers?

Although the concepts of lean manufacturing and mass customisation are beginning to have an impact on architecture, there is still relatively little connection between the design environment and manufacturing output. We have seen that the traditional relationship between architect and off-site solutions provider is a one way conversation.  Most off-site constructed buildings are still designed today with a traditional mentality – drawings are submitted and design and manufacture are rarely integrated.

Solution providers who have the the technology and the tools for mass customisation risk becoming reduced to “islands of automation”, with the awesome potential going untapped.

The risk of having a top down approach is that the integrity of the vision is maintained while everything else can get compromised as it drives down into the detail. A lack of co-ordination in the bottom up approach, means although the architect has a clear vision, it is never fully realised. This forces architects and designers to take a step back and re-examine their traditional processes.


A streamlined approach

Design for Manufacture and AssemblyThe solution begins with a concept called Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) which is a way of incorporating inherent efficiency into the build by observing the benefits or constraints of the manufacturing process. The extra time spent or design alterations made are compensated by increased speed of build, reduced waste, safer practices and a more predictable programme. The benefits are multiplied if details or principals can be applied and repeated over multiple plots or projects.

Software tools allow costing and impact assessment of multiple supply chain elements, but at the more basic end of the spectrum, DfMA can be applied simply by involving the off-site solutions provider and manufacturer early in the design process. In all projects, the architect has an overarching theme or set of themes which determine the aesthetic qualities and human interaction with the building. During the design process, the architect must compromise some areas to incorporate practical necessities and allow cost saving, whilst maintaining the original concept.

If an architect can design from the start with a system in mind, considering the geometry, performance and detailing of a product, then they are less likely to have to make concessions at a later stage. The additional benefit for the manufacturer in influencing the design is to maximise the performance of their product and the efficiency at which it can be made.

In terms of manufacturing planning, having foresight of the product quantity and timescale of the project feeds more efficiency into the supply chain. The off-site manufacturer can order materials with more confidence if waste rates are understood in advance.

From the perspective of an estimator, knowing that the project has already been appraised permits more confidence to price keenly, as understanding waste rates and risks have already been considered. This immediately translates into a better price for the client.

This approach allows construction and engineering challenges to be addressed before work begins on site – instilling confidence in methodologies, programme and budget. That’s why some designers are now becoming directly involved in the fabrication process from the earliest stages of concept. Off-site solution providers now employ large design teams, which work with the architect early on to make the most out of the benefits of their system. The solutions provider can advise on the most efficient and cost effectively way to achieve their design.

Increasingly important from a sustainability point of view, using automated processes to manufacture construction components in a controlled offsite environment means DfMA enables the calculation of materials requirements with absolute precision. This way, the industry’s most sustainable construction solution is the elimination of waste from the outset – and the return would be waste back into the production process.

The conclusion is, collaborating with off-site specialists very early and throughout the design means optimisation of the manufacturing process, which builds better buildings.

This early collaboration means the smallest of inputs leveraged properly can produce large outputs. A bottom up approach means marginal gains can be made to produce the most efficient building systems in terms of ease of construction and the lifetime build quality, leading to overall better outcomes.

Conflicting objectives will create variability. With variability, the costs of production increase and construction on site becomes more difficult and time consuming. However, these costs are minimised when parties choose to align their goals and the benefits are multiplied. This requires architects to engage in meaningful collaboration with off-site providers in order to realise the benefits the off-site construction industry has to offer them.

This variability is positive, as long as it is managed by a solutions provider that controls the whole end-to-end delivery process and has all its functions geared towards making the most efficiency at every step of the process. Potential inefficiencies can then be identified and eliminated. Cost and risk can be drastically reduced whilst enabling design to be flexible.

It’s a balance between variability and cost effectiveness. Get the balance right, and miraculously your architectural vision will be maintained whilst driving down budget and cost. Everybody wins.

But why collaborate when you can hypercollaborate? In maximising the benefits, all parties become ‘integral’ to the process. This makes an interactive decision-making process essential. Sharing past experiences and accumulated knowledge so all can benefit has never been so important.

This is in stark contrast with the traditional mentality taken with on-site construction, which consequentially has not been able to solve the problem of the performance gap between as-designed and as-built. Off-site systems, such as SIPs, which employ the ‘Flatpack Volumetric’ method seem increasingly able to effectively eliminate this gap by taking this progressive approach.

Sam Dawe – Technical Manager at Innovaré Systems

SIP Architects and Designers - Technical Manager- Sam Dawe



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