DESIGN PROCESS: The Future of Construction: Taking Inspiration from the Manufacturing Industry?
For this thought piece, Design Delivery Unit’s experience on delivering visionary architecture meets Manchester School of Architecture’s Complexity, Planning & Urbanism (CPU) unit in a critical appraisal of the future of construction and new models of practice. Here a team of students with a shared interest in computational design and technology in architecture envisage an innovative type of “design and build” practice, Forge, that places the “build” process at the driving seat.
Manchester School of Architecture Professional Studies module leader: Stephen McCuster. Team Forge: Henry Baker (Project Lead), Menghan Chen, Crissti Dubina, Junjie Su, Michael Williams, Giselle Xie, Siyu Xie
With a productivity growth of around 1% per year, the construction industry is lacking efficiency and innovation, especially when compared to an average productivity growth of 2.8% for the total world economy and 3.6% for the relentless productivity of the manufacturing industry1.
This lack of productivity is exemplified through the UK housing crisis. With only 430,000 affordable new homes constructed in the UK since 2010 (as of Sept 2019)2 , the need to deliver high-quality outputs efficiently and reliably has become increasingly severe.
In this context, the question can be raised if techniques of standardisation and streamlining are being integrated into architectural practice at a sufficient level. For example, approaches such as DfMA (Design for Manufacture and Assembly) can realise improvements including a 20-60% reduction in construction time, 20-40% reduction in construction costs and a 70% reduction in on-site labour3 . This positively contributes to government Climate Change Committee (CCC) targets, most notably to be net zero on all greenhouse gases by 2050, in addition to the RIBA’s 2030 climate challenge targets, such as reducing embodied carbon.
As part of our Professional Studies at the Manchester School of Architecture, we were asked to put together a pitch for investment, proposing a fictional architecture practice, to be reviewed by a university panel of critics. The accompanying portfolio outlined the financial, ethical and marketing strategies that would enable our practice to become successful in the industry.
The thought-piece below sets out our approach as a group of seven, formed under the company ‘Forge’. Our business plan, as an inter-disciplinary design collective, was developed around the core principles of digitalisation, standardisation and functionality. One that champions currently under-utilised communication and management skills of architects, by placing them at the forefront of design teams, and by diversifying revenue streams towards a passive means of income.
THE ‘BUILD WITH DESIGN’ METHODOLOGY
The standardisation of construction processes into components built off-site, is well established as a modern building method in the industry. Whereas the design stages are typically a unique endeavour for each new project. T
he design of buildings are often executed in a linear fashion, from one party (such as the architect) to another (such as the MEP consultants), with an iterative design process that follows. This can be effective for ensuring quality, however it can also waste a significant amount of time and resources. We were interested in exploring the possibility of standardising the design process, where buildings are instead perceived as manufacturable ‘products’ using templates of pre-built components, that can be replicated on a larger scale.
These components, such as bathroom and utility ‘pods’, partition panels and full external modules would be continuously manufactured by a streamlined production chain, utilising standardised fittings and systems for ease of assembly, maintenance and disassembly.
However, most crucially, the design itself is conceived with these components as the driving force from the very outset of the project. Therefore, templates are selected from a portfolio, essentially of different arrangements of the aforementioned components, and applied and moulded to the shape and constraints of the site, being developed on thereafter. 31 We envisage a different, more innovative type of practice that has its own ‘building systems’, comprised of their own templates and how they build them. We call this the ‘Build with Design’ methodology and promoted this wholeheartedly in our business proposal.
This type of company would have its own intellectual property, templates, components and building systems, designed to meet the UK’s building regulations and space standards as a prerequisite.The company uses its own in-house software tools to generate, optimise and design, as automated and digitalised workflows allow for a greater level of interoperability between design and construction.
This proposal was then presented to a panel of ‘investors’ to discuss the feasibility of such a practice, the advantages and disadvantages, and the feedback received was overwhelmingly positive.
A STREAMLINED, ‘INTERNALISED’ BUSINESS MODEL
The business model for this type of practice is based on the core principles of function-driven, standardised design, digitalisation and an inter-disciplinary personnel structure. Where the financing and revenue methods differ considerably from conventional practices; a fully internalised model, one where all aspects of the design of these manufacturable ‘products’ are undertaken under one company.
A well-integrated structure would promote greater collaboration between different skillsets from the outset of a project, leading to a high level of communication and a streamlined workflow. The driving force behind this type of practice are the company’s internal assets; a library of parametric building templates, an internal retrofit panel system, or a platform of computational design tools. These assets provide the basis for the design methodology of the practice, and could also be ‘loaned out’ to external parties for further revenue, possibly even a subscription-based model.
The focus becomes less about the project itself but more regarding the design of the assets, such as an entirely resolved bathroom pod, which can be continuously manufactured and sold to third-parties. This could in turn widen the brand’s outreach, adapting it for the ever-globalised society.
The business would have competitors such as IKEA and Airbnb, instead of traditional developers and architecture practices, as the company places itself at the centre of a vastly under-supplied housing market. The company could acquire land and existing buildings for re-use, and execute the entire development, manufacture, assembly and retail of the buildings to the end-user, thus establishing a circular, internal business model. Revenue would be generated passively from rent and maintenance work, instead of unreliable lump sums. Automation and AI could be adopted throughout this process that further transforms the practice’s workflow, and software tools developed in-house can act as an additional revenue stream. If utilising a portfolio of pre-designed building templates, streamlines the company’s overheads, then passive revenue streams such as software subscriptions, rent, maintenance and disassembly work stabilise the company’s financial future.
Inevitably however, a business such as this would experience difficulties. The initial incorporation of an internalised manufacturing chain would require a substantial amount of investment to initiate in the short-term, and a highly complex, organised system thereafter. Although this business proposal comes solely from our perspective as part 2 students, it is centred around industry requirements and sustainability standards and targets. Therefore, we believe that efficient modern methods of construction, such as panelised systems and prefab housing templates, coupled with digital tools and holistic manufacturing processes, could become essential in the construction industry, and inherently linked to the success of future practices. There is a critical need for the construction industry to re-position, and align itself with the design and operational strategies to re-position and become closely aligned with the design and operational strategies of the Manufacturing and Automotive industries, to thrust construction towards a highly-augmented, digitalised future.
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