Can off-site construction deliver on its promise?
If you have ever watched a time-lapse video of a fast-food restaurant built from scratch in just 24 hours, or bathroom pods being craned into place like giant Lego on a block of flats, then you will already have seen off-site construction in action.
Off-site methodologies – where elements, or even whole buildings arrive prefabricated from the factory – are ideal for design schemes that involve significant repetition of units. But, what about fit-out and interiors projects, where the building itself is already in place, whether an existing store up for refurbishment, or a pristine newly-developed shell unit? Could off-site construction work well for a national retailer shop-fitting a wide portfolio of properties? This is what we at M&S are about to find out.
We are working ahead of schedule on our Plan A commitment to begin trials of off-site methodologies for stores and shop-fit by 2016, and make recommendations for future use. The timeframe of this commitment to innovation is an indicator of our eagerness to quantify the potential cost-efficiency benefits of off-site, plus understand fully how it could help maintain our environmental commitment to send no waste to landfill from our construction activities.
Of course, in some respects off-site is not a new thing for us at all: ‘backstage’, coldrooms and plant facilities have been built this way for 30 years. Looking ahead, though, we think most of the fit-out of our stores could actually be undertaken using off-site methods – everything from wall systems, with integrated doors and pre-plumbed services, to bakeries, delis, cafés, toilets, high-level services and packaged plant.
We already understand the many advantages for whole-building schemes and some are definitely transferable, to a degree, to fit-out work. Off-site construction can cut build time, saving on site and labour costs, plus bring forward completion and operation dates, securing significant business benefit. Further efficiencies can be achieved via reduced need for premium-rate night-time and weekend working (outside store opening hours). Less call for storage and cutting of materials on site also helps with waste minimisation, health & safety, economy of delivery, logistics and quality control – leading to better energy-efficiency performance on the project, reduced carbon emissions and less snagging.
We know build quality can definitely be improved via off-site, so there is a potential for better-constructed kitchen areas in our store cafés, for example. The fibreglass moulded tile panels utilised in lieu of traditional ceramics and grout have an antimicrobial finish, which gives a hygiene benefit to food-preparation areas.
Other elements of our building work, like corporate signage and the components that go to make up our display windows, certainly may benefit. In a trading environment, where we have put in things like new bakeries, using off-site has meant that sales are being made after a couple of days instead of a couple of weeks – clearly a strong commercial gain. The same could also work in-store for things like fitting rooms, cafés and Customer Service areas.
So, are off-site solutions really the future for construction? Well, at M&S, for off-site to become a strategic method first it must be seen to be commercially viable. It might not be viable on a one-off project basis, but we are exploring the likely financial benefits for larger programmes, such as our rolling Simply Foods Programme.
In this aim, we are confident that more of our contractors coming ‘on message’ will undoubtedly help us. The benefits also increase significantly when joined up using Building Information Modelling (BIM) and Lean programming. In our view, unless Lean, or fully collaborative planning is employed – taking significant time out of the overall project duration – the real benefits of off-site will not materialise.
For M&S, then, off-site is full of promise. What we will learn – starting with recent trial projects such as the new Great Yarmouth Simply Food store – is whether it can deliver on that promise.