Opportunities in the Adoption of Modern Construction Techniques in the UK

Introduction and Background

The United Kingdom government's housing memoranda, coupled with the current business circumstances, presented the housebuilding industry with an inducement to produce more innumerable modern homes while advancing Modern Method Construction Composition (MMCC) all-embracing efficiency within the challenging building sector (Arif et al., 2017). Although, Atkinson and Jacobs (2020) argued that channelling resources into development and provision of low cost, good quality, secure, and environmentally friendly housing is not attractive to private investors particularly the social and vertical housing. On the other hand, modernisation has been claimed as the key-way-find to availing the challenges, it has been promulgated feeble at best in exercising or endorsement. Implementation entails a transformation period from subsisting methods, and it is in this period, the drawbacks will transpire.

In adoption of change in construction industry, six key stages are identified, representing the consistency among the processes that include formulating constructs, evolving examination, utilisation, evaluation, and enrichment. These drawbacks limit significantly adoption of modern construction techniques such as offsite manufacturing and slowing progress in improving time, cost, and quality. The measure of the new homes launched by the prominent housebuilders represented their effect on new housing development in the UK (Wellings 2006), which implies large firms' significance in taking up reform.

Factors Driving UK Housing Environment

As part of its renewable emissions commitment, the United Kingdom (UK) government has promised a mandated zero carbon building by 2016 (the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), 2020). In 2007, the government had committed to build more than 240,000 homes yearly, however, according to the report released by DCLG, completed homes in 2019 were approximately 170,000, the highest in over a decade. These missed targets come despite a sharp rise in demands for housing. In attempt to address the rising housing crises characterised by homelessness, overcrowding, and unsuitable housing conditions, the government announced in 2019 a plan to invest £9 billion towards delivering 250,000 homes by 2022 (Bulman, 2019). Thereby, the housing sector has also been required to develop further home building and industries becoming more constructive to levitate these plight. Automation would be a way to escape impoverishment and implement sustainable construction (Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), 2008). However, the proportion of advancement has been reported marginalised in UK house construction (Ball 1999; Barker 2003). It is misleading to assume good predictions from those profiles (Roskrow 2004; Pan et al. 2008).

According to Taylor (2010) and Chiang et al. (2006), offsite manufacture (OSM) in the construction industry faces several challenges ranging from cost performance caused by both labour and material cost, project performance, skilled labour shortage, low productivity, technological change, and demand for sustainability and efficiency. Alonso-Zandari and Hashemi (2016) argued that the industry does not attract enough talent to meet those retiring, the growing market demand, as well as change forced into the industry. In a survey conducted by Wang et al. (2016), 75% of the firms in the industry were expected to increase into workforce but it was estimated that 78% would have challenges in attracting and filling vacancy with qualified personnel. Demographically, the findings by Sokas et al. (2019) showed that 21 of the workforce in the industry are above 55 years while only 9% are below 24 years. This disparity induces two major problems. First, the lack of technology-savvy younger who would otherwise push for integration of technology-driven approaches limits the industry in attempt to modernise. Secondly, as pointed by Lavallière et al. (2016) and Koh et al. (2019), lack of new idea and perspective on approach and process being used advances the status-quo in addition to lacking pushing factors to adopt change.

Houses completion

Influence of technology in the sector goes beyond fabrication but include modelling, transportation, communication, telematics, project management, and human resource management. Currently, such technological advancement such as Virtual Reality (VR), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR), robotics, 3D printing, and automatous vehicles are being integrated and poised to significantly influence operations and performance of the entire construction industry (Sun et al., 2017; Bilal et al., 2016; Wu et al., 2016). However, it should be noted that successful adoption and integration of these technologies and new approaches, is subject to myriad factors that include perception of key players towards change, the incentives and push factors to adopting alternative and efficient methods. One can argue that ultimate de-skilling of designers from creators to specifiers would lead to higher productivity. The findings by Wang et al. (2020) on digital technology adoption in off-site construction (OSC) highlighted the approach significance in reducing resources wastes, enhancing productivity, and cutting cost and time as well as offering higher productivity and safety to the industry.

Cluster of factors

A 2017 survey on employer skills in the UK workforce conducted by Winterbotham et al. (2017 found that the employers face more challenges in recruiting skilled and experiences workforce particularly in technical and practical sector, similarly, the respondents noted skill shortages in their existing workforce. Some studies hold that the period from design stage to onsite assembly would actually be longer that traditional approach (Kilaire, and Stacey, 2017; Azman et al., 2013). According to Salama (2018) and Arashpour et al. (2016) planning and scheduling process required involve formulating and choosing relevant policies, procedures, and methods while constrained by available resource, quality, and productivity rate is mostly marred by lack of coordination and collaboration among key stakeholders on the project. Lean construction practices and design-build requiring high level of communication and coordination is core in enhancing productivity and efficiency (Hosseini et al., 2018).

Research Gap

From the literature, studies highlight the significance integration and implementation of OSC techniques would have to the UK’s construction industry ranging from advancing efficiency, reducing time and cost, improving quality, to enhancing productivity. From the literature, the current OSC is limited to lack of the capacity to respond to widespread demand, and on-demand. Therefore, the default, where capacity is unavailable, is traditional build methods. In the UK, the challenge is exacerbated by lack skilled and experienced workforce in the market to advance technology implementation in the sector coupled by low competition by organisations offering similar systems leading to a lack of competition. However, studies demonstrated the significant benefits, but it is counterintuitive to see low adoption rate particularly in the UK. As such, the big question is why the housebuilding and entire construction industry has been slow implementation and embracing technology-driven approach given its huge potential.

Research Aim and Objectives

Research aim

To investigate the recent United Kingdom housing policy changes, challenges/barriers, and drivers the UK's housebuilding sector faces, including proposing a data-driven strategy to address these (short, medium or long term).

Objective of the Research

1. To investigate in-depth the changes faced in the housebuilding sector in the United Kingdom Post Covid 19

2. To examine the influence of modernisation through the adoption of key drivers to offsite manufacturing approach to the UK housebuilding industry.

3. To investigate barriers and drawbacks faced in adopting MMC composition within the UK housebuilding industry.

4. To conduct a case study examining the problems in the MMC residential building sector in UK and compare case studies Malaysia.

5. To attain data-driven alternative resolutions from the UK & Malaysia sector and propose the most effective solution using MMC composition for output in the housebuilding industry.

The focus of this is exploring the changes being experienced by the homebuilding. Like any other sector, the change in the sector is inevitable. The heightening demands ranging from high quality to low cost expenditure from homeowners, regulators, and clients force contractors to seek alternative methods during construction while adhering to standards and codes. In addition to market demands, modernisation through technology is making ripple effect to the industry. For the traditional companies in the industry, integrating the changes can be a challenge. In order to get a glimpse of changes and understand their implication in the sector, this investigation will explore adoption of MMC within the UK housebuilding industry. The focus will be driven by capturing and understanding the barriers and drawbacks faced in the UK compared to Malaysian housebuilding industry. The dissertation addresses a large UK housebuilding company's problem study and explores tremendous life cycle reforms in the development response plan.

Proposed Methodology

Research Philosophy

The aim of this study is to investigate drawbacks faced by the UK’s house building industry and change integration within the sector. From the literature, several factors have limited the entire industry in implementation technology driven and adoption of such approach as prefabrication techniques. Studies point to such factors as lack of skilled and experienced workforce, lack of capacity to deliver volume to common designs, acceptance concern of key stakeholders on modular manufacturing, and limited by structural including policies driving the industry given that an evolving sector (Vernikos et al., 2014; Arif et al., 2017; Zhang et al., 2019; Nawi et al., 2014). Building from these, this investigative study will adopt an interpretivist paradigm.

Unlike positivism paradigm that perceive variables of a given a phenomenon in a measurable and verifiable manner, interpretivist argue that in social research participants hold different perspective, opinions, and point of view informed by one’s experiences (Alharahsheh, and Pius, 2020; Aliyu et al., 2014). In order to gain perspective and understand a given phenomenon, a research has to engage and hold direct in depth interaction with participants. In this case, the drawbacks faced by house building industry as well as developing passivity strategy as a response plan requires in depth interaction and engagement with key players in the field

Research Design

Building the assertion by Marczyk et al. (2021), research design outlines techniques chosen by a researcher encompassing various components to address the research question and attain the stipulated objectives in a systematic manner while handling the research problem efficiently. Ideally, a design adopted captures strategies integrated into the study to solve the outlined problem in a logical and coherent manner. A case study is a research follows a purview of applying theorised concepts and scientific assertion into real world scenario (Harrison et al., 2017). In the case of this study, modernisation in the industry that include integration of modelling technology, off-site fabrication, MNC, and integration management need to be tested in real world phenomenon to determine viability, and not just a computerised concept. Therefore, given that the focus of this research is determining the change implementation capturing the challenges and drawbacks faced in the housebuilding industry, it is prudent to have a real world scenario to examine. It worth noting that in any industry, modernisation comes with challenges including financial requirement, skills, maturity, regulations, and resistance. However, the challenges during implementation process is largely unique to the industry and scenario. Hence, the essence of having a case study. The UK housebuilding industry will be investigated as a case then compared to Malaysian sector.

Research Approach

For the qualitative, as described by Creswell (2014), involves collection and analysis of non-numerical data aimed to gain an insight of the problem, opinions, experiences, and point of view. In combining the two methods, one can map out number of participants answer to given questions while exploring individual reasons for holding that view. However, due to prolonged novel COVID-19 pandemic and following the UK government movement restrictions and lockdowns, the interactions with the participants with aim of attaining an in depth understanding on the issue will not be possible.

Constructive Research Approach (CRA)

Rautiainen et al. (2017) described CRA as an approach used in solving real world problems in a systematic and procedural manner. The constructions embody having a stepwise method such as mathematical algorithms aid in taking the scientific perspective into a real scenario and taking a world view. The Methodology captures statistical and data quantifying the problem through patterns, distribution, regression, mode, and mean (Goertzen, 2017; Bloomfield, and Fisher, 2019). In this case, the data from UK housebuilding industry will capture challenges faced in implementing changes towards modernisation. The key element is capturing the data from the housebuilders in the UK on drivers of offsite construction, MMC composition, and challenges experienced during implementation process.

The Design Science Research (DSR) approach extends Lukka (2003) assertion, which seeks to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Innovative construction research takes the form of assessing the performance of interventions or artefacts executed within the context of the intended use (Aken, 2004). This research approach to study and test construction is multiple case studies. The advanced research involved PAN-Asian cases studies compared to UK house building construction schemes through the modern construction method. Notwithstanding the finalisation of the designated framework, the application of Choosing by Advantages (CBA) in the case studies became an explication to afford a tool for optimising group determinations. The information gleaned from these reflections would then be used to the end of the fundamental reflective enrichment.

Research Limitations

The purpose of this research was to investigate the Offsite Construction / manufacturing and their integration to enhance the productivity of construction operations to investigate the barriers/ drawback to MMC. Although techniques, guidance and development successfully developed and tested on live projects (case studies) that demonstrated a considerable potential to improve cost and time savings and resource utilisations, it also has the following limitations:

There are social economical paradigms, however, due to insufficient time and other resources, this study has only investigated the implementation of MMC paradigm. This investigation has contributed by development OSC / MMC based on types of case studies, that is United Kingdom and Malaysia. However, construction sector involves various other types of processes as well throughout the timeline of a project. The developed cases have only taken the operation phase of a scheme into consideration. The most significant justification for this step is that OSC is most beneficial during with various scenarios. It does not take in to account other stages of any construction process like decisions making, logistics or risk modelling etc.

The enormous potential to improve resource utilisation and labour planning; however, the construction community as a whole to training or courses to understand its working, methodology, experimentation tools and ability to understand the generated results. Many companies, especially SMEs are not willing to spend resources on training or adopting new technology which is a significant barrier.

The data essential for the key development collected within the United Kingdom, and Malaysia, that these may not represent a generic picture of a construction process in other countries. Real life data was captured and used for the research are restricted due to literature. However, synthetic data was used for testing and validation purposes at later stages due to unavailability of similar case studies in the limited timeframe.

Expected Outcomes or Deliverables

Like any other industry, housebuilding has encountered several challenges over the past decades. The challenges ranging from changing business variables, heightening consumer demands and preferences, supporting materials and systems, stringent regulations and policy, increasingly scarcity in resources (land and financial), skills and knowledge, and technological advancement. In the UK, the changing industry demand balancing the development process and financial resources to drive the process while also taking into account demands and market parameters. Arguably, channelling resources into development and building houses that are of good quality, meet regulations, are safe, and cheap while also taking into account the environmental sustainability requires first gaining an insight and understanding the industry.

Key to this is having a perspective of both social and economic aspect driving the house building. Similarly, need for moderation in the industry such as following the building safety regulations, energy conservation, environmental consideration, and technologically up to date have collective pushed the industry investment idealism. Although modernisation concept is meant to push and offer solution to the challenges faced in the industry, some people such as developers and investors as a challenge in not just financial aspects but also the expertise and skills required to pioneer to drive.

Research Beneficiaries and Dissemination

Technological advancement such as prefabrication has been received positively by the developers and investor, and seen as a way forward of cutting cost and operating time as well as an approach of circumventing stringent restrictions and building code within the UK. Adoption of technology in the industry entails more than having the technology itself but rather the supporting features play an integral part. The big questions are: will prefabrication offer a better and more effective way of dealing with challenges faced in the constructions industry; will it be a lifeline or another challenging in the already troubled industry?


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