Modular thinking

Words:
Ben Derbyshire

Don’t dismiss offsite manufacturing – it offers more than you think

Touring the country meeting members, I have been challenged to explain the value of off-site manufactured buildings, which, some have argued, are a threat to our great profession. If you feel this way, then here is my response. I’d love to hear what you make of it! 

Think first of the consumers of the built environment who now, more than ever, demand high quality, high performing buildings quickly and at low cost. Current methods of procurement repeatedly fail to deliver this. Design and build especially, purporting to transfer capital cost risk away from developers and building owners, all too often generates a host of unintended consequences that result from the lack of continuity, control and accountability for sustainable quality.

Now consider the commercial realities for many of us competing to deliver our services in this decidedly unrewarding environment. We are often trapped into selling professional time as a commodity at damagingly low rates – sometimes in a process deliberately designed to sever our relationship of care and concern for the quality of the finished outcome.

As president of the RIBA I am committed to fight to regain the ground architects have conceded. Marginalising architects marginalises design and that deprives the public of the quality and value they deserve. 

I will of course argue for a better deal for the profession in traditional construction and procurement.  But a brighter future awaits where we leap ahead and become an integral part of an advanced and integrated construction process; designers embedded in the industrial complex – designers-in-industry.

We are often trapped into selling time as a commodity – sometimes in a process deliberately designed to sever our relationship of care and concern for the quality of the finished outcome

I have long been inspired by designers, often from other industries, who combine innovative design with a profound understanding of materials, technologies and processes to deliver unprecedented outcomes. Think of Alec Issigonis and the 1959 BMC Mini. More than half a century after his world beating new car hit the streets I believe architects who invest in their own technologies and explore design solutions that satisfy un-met consumer demands will find huge rewards. 

This is a belief borne out in the experience of my own practice where research and development into energy efficiency, air-tightness, custom-build, virtual reality, performance prediction, and modular construction, enabled by information technology, ties designers and their technologies into the development process from the assessment of site suitability to post occupancy evaluation. 

By embracing off-site technologies architects can gain the profound satisfaction of contributing the art and science of architecture to projects that deliver outstanding and unprecedented innovation in the building industry. Projects designed this way are built twice – first virtually. The virtual model can be assessed in a wide variety of parameters and viewed by developers, constructors, clients and consumers in 4D. The physical building can be delivered incredibly rapidly, its construction held as a matter of record, and its ultimate de-construction in pursuit of the circular economy appropriately planned. The technologies enable mass customisation (as in many other industries) and so unprecedented consumer choice. This two-stage process also avoids quality-sapping ‘value engineering’ too often associated with traditional builds. 

But what of the threat of cookie cutter identikit buildings, out of kilter with their context, and crude and utilitarian in appearance? People, politicians and the planning system are all rising in opposition to that phenomenon – and rightly so. Far from inflicting an environment of dreary sameness, the technologies I describe here are the key to legible, recognisable and attractive new neighbourhoods. In the words of Mark Farmer: ‘Modernise, or die’!

president@riba.org, @ben_derbyshire


New minister, new ministry

Theresa May’s January reshuffle saw both a new housing minister appointed and a new name for his department – the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. Our Policy & Public Affairs team produces a weekly political update covering key political developments, opportunities to get involved with the RIBA’s work and a summary of key developments related to the built environment. RIBA members can sign up at public.affairs@riba.org