The construction industry is working hard to help tackle the climate and biodiversity emergencies. The built environment’s contribution to total carbon emissions is well-publicised, and there’s widespread recognition that meeting the needs of a growing and urbanising global population must be done in tandem with increasing productivity and using raw materials more efficiently.
Significant progress has been made, and continues to be made, in reducing the operational impact of buildings. But it’s also necessary to tackle how buildings are designed and delivered, how construction products are manufactured, and what happens to buildings (and their components) at the end of their life. This is arguably the biggest challenge for the construction sector.
There’s no panacea for the environmental impact of construction. Multiple initiatives aimed at transforming construction are currently showing what building design and procurement might look like in the coming years. With such tight timescales between now and 2050, it’s important to ensure that the industry collaborates effectively to avoid duplicated or wasted effort.
How government is helping to drive development of construction platforms
Decarbonising construction in a responsible and sustainable way, taking into account the potential for unintended consequences, means assessing the complete life cycle of a building.
Traditional procurement and construction results in buildings that are essentially prototypes or one-offs, from which it’s difficult to carry learning to the next project. It’s possible to take steps to reduce the upfront carbon and the operational carbon of those buildings, but it’s rarely possible to adapt them later for other uses, or to disassemble them to reuse components.
This inability to prolong the life of construction products, or entire buildings, is inefficient, and it’s incompatible with a net zero industry.
A ‘platform approach to design for manufacture and assembly’ (P-DfMA) rethinks how buildings are designed and assembled (rather than ‘constructed’). It is a type of modern method of construction (MMC), and takes its inspiration from the automotive industry.
Construction platforms feature standardised kits of parts that can be assembled in a predictable and repeatable fashion – while still giving building designers freedom to create buildings of any type and style. Recognising that platform construction improves certainty and lowers risk , the UK government has made a commitment to procure construction platforms for publicly funded projects, which is helping to drive the development of different solutions.
Collaboration between the construction industry and government
July 2013 can be viewed as a point at which collaboration between government and the construction sector really began to lead us to the point we’re at now, nearly a decade later. The partnership strategy Construction 2025 was launched, and led to the Construction Leadership Council being established.
Over the following five years, various other government strategies were published, and 2016 saw the BIM mandate come into force. In November 2018, the Construction Innovation Hub (CIH) was launched, thanks to £72 million from UK Research and Innovation.
The CIH united expertise from the Building Research Establishment (BRE), the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) and the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB), with the aim of guiding the transformation of the UK construction industry.
As part of that transformation, the CIH announced the Platform Design Programme (PDP) in 2019.
Another mark of the ongoing collaboration between government and industry was seen in December 2020, with the publication of the Construction Playbook – a document outlining the government’s commitment to working with the construction industry to “ensure public sector works are delivered quicker, better and greener.”
What P-DfMA projects have come to fruition thanks to collaboration and funding?
To support policies in the Construction Playbook and other government strategies, the CIH has committed to producing guidance and processes that will allow the market to develop construction product platforms. A defined process, set out in the Product Platform Rulebook, is essential to ensure that the benefits of platforms are realised to their fullest extent.
A number of different projects, aimed at proving the concept of construction platforms, has helped in the development of this rulebook.
Government funding led to the creation of the consortium-led SEISMIC II project featuring: construction consultants Blacc; the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC); two offsite manufacturers, Elliott Group and the McAvoy Group; Tata Steel; the Active Building Centre (ABC); and the National Composite Centre (NCC).
Tata Steel has also contributed to the PDP, being part of the envelopes and structures teams. The PDP’s focus is on delivering products that can work within systems. To understand how components from different manufacturers can work with each other, ‘sand pits’ or ‘mini demonstrators’ have been created to prove concepts, dealing with smaller areas of the building like individual junctions.
Different building types require different platforms, and Tata Steel has contributed to rethinking the construction of both commercial office developments and industrial long-span buildings.
A standard ComFlor® Beam composite deck has been repurposed as part of construction of The Forge in London, and the project has already demonstrated substantial savings that can result from using P-DfMA.
Consultants Bryden Wood were part of the team that developed the construction platform used for The Forge, and Tata Steel also collaborated with them to create FASTtruss, a system for long-span industrial buildings . Using FASTtruss roof trusses and structural frames, it’s possible to use materials more efficiently and save weight compared to an equivalent portal frame design.
To learn more about Tata Steel’s activity in P-DfMA and modular construction – including SEISMIC II, FASTtruss and The Forge – sign up to our newsletter.