The term ‘Platforms,’ most commonly used in manufacturing, refers to a process whereby sets of components or assemblies can be put together in a multitude of different ways to create a multitude of different products. In the context of the built environment, the most basic goal of construction Platforms is to drive value within the sector - to apply the lessons of manufacturing to construction, and do what we do better, more efficiently and more productively. However, the concurrent benefits of adopting a Platform approach are much more wide-reaching; the transformation of a construction industry in crisis and the creation of a safer, healthier and more sustainable way of building for both ourselves and our planet.
Building our future with sustainable infrastructure
Platform Design for Manufacture and Assembly (PDfMA) offers a unique opportunity to refocus an industry beset by problems: low productivity, poor value, an aging workforce and not enough new workers. Operating in this current state, we simply can’t meet the needs of the future. Our global population is increasing rapidly – it’s estimated to reach 11.5 billion by 2050. So there’s an unavoidable need to create high-quality and sustainable infrastructure for vast numbers of people, including housing, education, healthcare and transport. At the same time, our environment demands change, with the building and construction industry contributing a staggering 39% of global carbon emissions. We must alter the way we design and build dramatically, both to keep pace with the needs of society and to prevent the acceleration of global warming.
At Bryden Wood, we are showing how this can be achieved through a process of industry collaboration and the adoption of modern methods of construction (MMC). By MMC, we mean all forms of innovation in construction - physical forms as well as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), robotics, data, automation, point cloud surveys, and so on… This is all in addition to the frequently used term ‘offsite’ which, in fact, only represents one aspect of MMC, or industrialised construction. We aren’t exclusively referring to the process of manufacturing large modules in factories and moving everything off construction sites. Although offsite will certainly form part of the solution, we propose to use a full range of new techniques and technologies, including construction Platforms. Our approach creates an entirely new way of working, one which sets out to achieve the best possible outcomes right from the start. This makes sure that the goals of quality, efficiency, suitability, productivity and sustainability inform every stage of the process.
Our DfMA journey
We began to use the term ‘Platforms’ while working with the UK Government Ministry of Justice (MOJ), the Infrastructure Projects Authority (IPA) and the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC). It was the MTC that first introduced us to the concept of Platforms. The MOJ wanted to design a new type of prison focused on rehabilitation. We realised that the manufacturing component of the construction process could be taught to serving prisoners, helping to train them in marketable skills for use on release, and aiding rehabilitation. We also realised that the sort of PDfMA systems we were designing for the MOJ could then be transferred across to other government infrastructure projects, thereby facilitating the wider adoption of these beneficial, lean construction processes.
Bryden Wood published the first book on construction Platforms in 2017 (available to download for free at www.brydenwood.co.uk) and we have continued to expand on and optimise Platforms and other MMC methodologies in our work with both public and private sector clients. We’ve never sought to patent our work and we have open sourced the code for both of our construction design apps - SEISMIC and PRISM. Our goal is to bring about maximum benefit for the wider industry and society. We encourage our clients to join us on this journey by allowing others to benefit from the knowledge and systems we create for each project. This creates a kind of reinforcing circle across the public and private sectors. By working together, we believe the industry can apply these transformative, design to value processes at scale and thereby deliver enormous benefit for the world.
In fact, we’re already seeing a wide range of benefits from the adoption of Platforms and our wider approach using modern methods of construction. Our recent work in the UK with Landsec on a modular office building project has demonstrated the following advantages: the automation of processes leading to a 30-50% reduction in the numbers of people onsite, an increase in safety as a result of reduced work at height, lower capital costs with a 25% reduction in materials due to component optimisation, and a 13% improvement in speed. Already impressive, we expect these metrics will only continue to improve over time.
Design to Value
The starting point, and where we must begin in order to truly maximise the benefits that PDfMA and MMC make possible, is to rework our core processes (design, procure, construct, operate) around a central, driving principle: process-led design. In other words, we must begin with the manufacture and assembly process in mind. Innovation doesn’t respect discipline or sector boundaries. It needs to sit across the entire operation. We are interested in increasing quality, productivity, timeliness and cost effectiveness. So we have to ask certain key questions from the outset, like: what’s the least amount of material that could possibly be used to build an asset? What’s the smallest number of times that asset could be touched or processed by people? How productive can those people be?
Our goal is lean construction. We want to remove anything which doesn’t add value. To achieve the best possible results, we must change the way we think, the way we manage materials and people. Design must form the entry point, with that particular element of PDfMA serving as the foundation and pervading principle for everything which follows. We must allow the manufacture and assembly process to drive the way we design the asset in the first place, as well as the way we engage the client and the supply chain.
Much of the industry’s current difficulty arises from the fact that few people can see the entire process through from end-to-end. At Bryden Wood we have, over time, developed a cross-disciplinary approach in response to this reality and the need to design towards the process – to rationalise, coordinate and develop a fully integrated design solution. Our team includes technologists, designers, architects, engineers and analysts, because it’s vital that we apply these new principles throughout. To begin with a traditional design process and then, at a later stage, attempt to retrofit some form of DfMA means compromising the design to make it fit the system, or creating a non-optimised, inefficient system – resulting in a disadvantaged built asset.
In addition, where the design and construction industry tends to focus on the differences between sectors - segmenting itself into deep specialisms and viewing particular elements in isolation, we must instead switch our focus to commonality, anchoring the design and build process in similarities, not differences. For example, floor-to-floor heights are relatively standard across a variety of different buildings: schools, hospital wards, apartment buildings and certain office types. This is because the heights result from the size of people, rather than being necessitated by the requirements of a particular sector. We allow for the height of a person, plus headroom, plus a zone for structures, M&E systems and architectural finishes. Recognising this reality, construction Platforms were Bryden Wood’s attempt to identify these types of cross-sector commonalities and develop a kit of parts which could then be used to build a variety of different sector types, but using the same components. This allows the application of manufacturing techniques and processes, as well as facilitating greater economies of scale.
The manufacturing industry has long enjoyed the benefits of this design to value approach. At BMW and Volkswagen a common car chassis is used across all models. It’s the finer details that change from car to car - the wheels, trim, engine, bodywork… Similarly, Ikea use a limited kit of components to create their various pieces of furniture. It doesn’t matter whether you’re making a bed, wardrobe or bookcase, most of the connecting pieces are the same. Construction Platforms allow us to apply this same type of thinking to built assets. Yes, those assets require flexibility, but the need for flexibility doesn’t have to be at odds with standardisation. We can have both.
Flexibility in modular construction
At Bryden Wood, it’s a guiding principle that we never compromise the design to fit the system. Rather, our aim is to allow a level of flexibility in the components to resolve the tension between the need for optimisation and variability – what the market wants, or clients need. For example, with the Platform to superstructure, we have a series of standard connection brackets, which link the beams and columns. The same brackets are used consistently and they are colour-coded. This makes it easy to teach people how to do the assembly and they become very quick at doing it. However, the beams and columns can be any length. Spans can be specific to particular clients, but to the operative on site, it's the same yellow bracket, requiring the same torque wrench and two bolts. Platforms enable us to get down to a much more granular level and simultaneously open the door for continual improvement and variability going forward with respect to supply chain choices, material choices and so on.
Maximising value with construction platforms
Because construction Platforms use a limited number of components, they give us a greater amount of control. We’re able to limit the number of processes and operations which have to happen on site and we can control materials much more accurately. There are also considerable time-saving benefits, which enable us to spend more time on the design and optimisation of components in the first place. We put a tremendous amount of effort into component design because we know we’ll be using those same components again and again. Every gram of material you take out of the manufacturing process, out of each assembly process, has a massive multiplier effect in terms of material reduction. This is an important part of sustainable design. These processes then become highly repeatable, enabling greater levels of automation in construction. We can turn to techniques such as robotic welding to make the parts, for example, and use popular distribution warehousing equipment on site. Such processes require fewer people and increase worker safety. In a socially distanced, post Covid-19 world, the advantages are even greater.
Standardisation in construction: making the most of what works best
It’s worth stressing again that standardisation in construction is not a negative, and it’s not unique to Platforms either. We’ve found that most clients want a certain level of standardisation. The Department for Education knows exactly what the best performing teaching space looks like. Most residential developers have a pattern book of apartments, which are best suited for their needs. They don’t want to design from scratch each time. Standardisation makes future maintenance easier. Where clients want the variability and flexibility is in the massing of the building, the articulation of the material choice and facade design.
We worked very hard with clients in the early stages to make sure that the construction Platforms we developed have enough variability in the areas which will facilitate maximum benefit. We want to have a Design to Value process which achieves exactly what is desired.
Tier 1 and the supply chain
Another benefit we see from DfMA construction is the evolution of a more direct relationship between the customer and their supply chain, cutting down on transactional costs and eliminating a lot of inefficiency. The contractor’s role becomes more profitable and sophisticated – what we refer to as a manufacturing assembly manager. We believe that going forward this role will put more effort into controlling logistics, supply chain etc… In fact, roles throughout the supply chain will change, becoming more efficient and more focused on driving value.
Meeting the needs of our clients
Over the years, we’ve come to recognise a wide variety of client drivers, including cost, time, net present value, capital and funding decisions. For some clients, accuracy in delivery is the most important thing. For others, such as the UK’s busiest airport, Heathrow, the biggest benefit arises from having the fewest number of people on site and the fastest possible delivery. What this means is that ultimately there are many different forms of PDfMA which are appropriate.
With construction Platforms, we’ve attempted to take everything we’ve learned in our client work and embed it in a set of components that clients and the industry more generally can benefit from. We’re focusing on the least amount of material, the lowest carbon materials, the highest levels of productivity. These are the driving principles of industrialised construction.
Automation in construction
In terms of maximising value, we must also address the reality that at present, the majority of an architect or designer’s time is spent documenting ideas, whereas in actuality, it is the creation of the idea in the first place which is the most value-adding element. One benefit of standardising components is that we can document the rules around those components. This in turn means we’re able to automate the design process (to a certain level), or certainly automate the production of the BIM model.
Standardising components and digitising workflows enables architects and designers to spend more time generating ideas and better designs, more time performing simulation and testing. Once the optimal design for a site is decided upon, the digital model, already aware of the required mechanical electrical components, wall types, doors, structural components and so on, is able to generate a LOD 400 bill of materials quality BIM model very quickly.
It’s worth stressing that using modern methods of construction in this way doesn’t mean taking jobs away from people. There’s so much to be designed! MMC will simply enable us to keep up with the needs of society. The more buildings that can be described by technical standards, state-based standards and rule sets ripe for some form of algorithmic design, the more we will be able to design more efficiently, more quickly and to a higher quality. This digital process will then feed all the way down through manufacturing, assembly automation and construction, with the ultimate benefits finding their way onto site.
Lean construction in practice: a virtuous circle of benefits
All of these factors combine to deliver cost and material savings, while using fewer people and increasing productivity. We’re already seeing evidence that it’s possible to build a superstructure with half the number of people in half the time, representing a four-fold increase in productivity, as well as a 25% reduction in overall material and a 20% reduction in embodied carbon. And there are other benefits, such as the ability to minimise tolerances. In our work with Crossrail we designed to zero tolerance with very good success. This unlocks vast potential in terms of manufacturing a better quality of building - structures which are more air- and weather-tight, energy efficient and overall better performing. Further, standardisation allows us to do a better job of integrating our mechanical and electrical engineering systems, which then has the knock-on effect of reducing the overall volume of a building by 30-40%. As the building gets smaller, so does the air handling plant. This creates a reduction in running costs - heating and lighting. In other words, we create a virtuous circle of benefit.
What is the future of the construction industry?
Ultimately, we suspect that over time buildings will become flexible configurations of components, rather than large, fixed assets. We may end up creating loose-fit superstructures. The superstructure contains the majority of the embodied carbon in a building. We could design these for a 100-year total life span, while the use of standardised components would make an interior refit possible every five to ten years. In its initial configuration a building might function as an office block, but components could be taken out and the building changed into a residential building or school. At the end of its life, the various standardised components would be recycled, reused or redeployed, creating a circular economy. As the Internet of Things evolves and built assets become smarter, gathering increasing amounts of data, they could become self-optimising, intelligent buildings – recognising the need for a change in air or lighting levels. Ultimately, this type of data would then feed back into the design process itself, creating an open-ended process of continual improvement, and contributing to the next generation of components.
Our sustainable future
Of course, the most pressing, current question is: how do we make a planet which sustainably supports 11.5 billion people? Population growth coupled with the required infrastructure will generate massive amounts of carbon. We must find ways to deliver what we need using much less. Optimisation of materials, better control of logistics, automation in construction, fewer people on site – all of these factors will help to create an overall lower carbon version of the built environment. We’re already working hard with concrete manufacturers to find the lowest carbon form of concrete we can possibly use. We’re talking to steel manufacturers about the types of steel which will be made by electric arc furnaces powered by hydrogen fuel cells. We’re evaluating whether it’s viable to grow enough forests to build buildings using timber. All of these issues must be addressed now.
Modern construction for the next generation
Finally, there is the question of the workforce itself. At present, there simply aren’t enough young people coming into the construction industry. Construction isn’t seen as an attractive option by the next generation, who would prefer to work in tech. Their idea of construction involves standing in muddy boots, trying to build things in the rain. It’s vital that we change that perception, because this young generation of gamers already have many of the skills we now need in the industry. They’ve grown up playing games like Minecraft and they’re used to working collaboratively in a 3D environment, designing with a standardised set of components. We tested our school design app SEISMIC on a group of nine-year-old children in London. We were astonished at how easily and intuitively they were able to use it.
It’s vital that we change the perception of the construction industry and focus on attracting young talent into it. We must make it clear that construction is an exciting, vital industry - one where these young people can put their existing skills to use in an enjoyable and rewarding way. But most of all, we must collectively rise to our own potential. We must embrace modern methods of construction to move ourselves safely and efficiently into the next stage of the modern world.
To learn more listen to Episode 1 of our podcast, Built Environment Matters: https://bit.ly/BrydenWoodPodcast