The structure for the long-span roof at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ Heathrow Terminal 5 building was manufactured off site and fitted in sections.
If you look at the history of architecture, technology predicated every new movement. We couldn’t build tall buildings until we understood steel and invented lifts in the late 19th century. In the postwar era, advances in concrete technology and a shortage of steel predicated brutalism.
Even the arts & crafts movement, which abhorred soulless Victorian industrialism, could not have happened without seeing the possibilities in factory production. And here, William Morris demonstrated that good design could revolutionise manufacturing outcomes. The same holds today. From mobile devices to cars, consumers demand high aesthetic values in manufactured goods. Why should manufacturing processes in construction be different?
Many designers remain wary and critical of the way manufacturing underpins both modern methods of construction (MMC) and design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA). Some assume it marks a demise in the architect’s role as a creative craftsman acting as a limitation to what architecture can achieve; for others, the very thought of factory processes and automated design is a complete anathema to the humanity of creating a building. Similar emotions surfaced at the dawn of computer-aided design. And yet, some firms are actively designing built assets for and through these methods. Their buildings often have flair and beauty while meeting sustainability requirements and being produced at more than twice the speed of traditional design and build. And the firms behind them are doing very well off the back of it.
Heathrow’s Terminal 5 under construction. The early installation of the prefabricated roof provided a safe, dry construction site while the extensive use of prefabrication meant that many of the 7,500 construction workers employed on site could be relatively unskilled and recruited from the local job centre.
Platform thinking that gathers commonalities of design and construction supported by automation and algorithms is also critical. And while all of this may seem daunting to the doggedly uninitiated, it is here to expand designers’ capabilities. The debate comes back down to the question: what is the role of the architect? Who spent seven years training only to focus most of their time on schedules or designing car park layouts or toilet blocks? Why would you waste time designing a bedroom for a block of flats when there are systems that have near enough arrived at the Platonic ideal for that space in seconds?
The architect’s role is a placemaking one; that is where they add value. Designers would rather spend time working on the aspect and the prospect, simulate energy balance, and look at people flows, the landscaping and overshadowing than designing from scratch something they have perhaps designed many times before. The tools are there to help architects do that – and it involves MMC.
An example is Bryden Woods’s PRiSM project. When the mayor of London announced he wanted to build 50,000 new homes per year in the capital in 2017, it was clear MMC would play an essential role. The problem was that not many designers knew how to design for MMC. The PRiSM app helps share precision-manufactured housing (PMH) knowledge, bringing speed and insight into the housing design process using standardisation and automation without limiting creativity and flexibility.
The PRiSM app goes some way to addressing the knowledge gap around MMC, but William Gibson’s famous maxim “The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed” rings true. Even in firms exploring modern methods, understanding is not always consistent. It is for architectural firms to engage with it and ensure they educate their designers.
Embedding that knowledge depends somewhat on the size of your practice and where you are starting from. But paying attention to what is coming out of the Construction Innovation Hub is essential. You might also identify champions of various methods and know-how who will help gather the information and direct learning within the organisation.
There is also no shortage of free-at-point-of-use learning materials out there. The Supply Chain Sustainability School, for example, has a wealth of material, and is sponsored by about 100 Tier 1 contractors and major clients who are very keen to see architects get up to speed with modern methods.
Firms can also formalise training in these areas and embed it into career paths. At Hawkins\Brown Architects, for example, they have a rolling programme of continuous professional development across the practice, which includes the seven categories of MMC. Manufacturers are invited to come in and give talks on each of the categories and inform the architects specifically on what they need to be thinking about in the early design stages.
Ultimately, this education involves shifting a mindset to where designers ask “how to build” first and then work within those few constraints through a relatively easy design and delivery process. The knowledge is also critical in explaining to clients what the benefits are and when MMC is and isn’t appropriate.
Building social value
Like William Morris and the arts & crafts movement, most architects seek to create social value through design. They have, after all, chosen a career that aims to make the world better through the built environment. Therefore, in residential buildings, for example, modern methods are a no-brainer for reducing carbon footprints, increasing affordability and providing quality.
But there is also a skills crisis that manufacturing and assembly can bypass. You don’t need highly trained engineers and specialist contractors to assemble a kit of parts. When Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ Heathrow Terminal 5 was built, demanding large sections of off-site manufacturing, people were recruited directly from the job centre to complete them. MMC helps alleviate a skills shortage in construction while providing work and skills that are easy to teach.
Manufacturing building components will not be the death of good design as some architects fear. But if we don’t change the way we do things, we won’t be able to build the infrastructure, offices and houses that we need fast enough. You couldn’t build 48 hospitals – as the government promised – using traditional methods; the skills aren’t available and it takes far too long.
And this is part of the thinking that has gone into the government’s Construction Playbook, the current oracle on key policies and guidance for how public building programmes are assessed, procured and delivered. But it should terrify architects that only one architect was involved in writing such an important document, revealing how the government perceives the profession. Uncomfortable as it might at first appear, it’s time to be brave – grappling with MMC provides architects with the best opportunity to reclaim their space at the top table, to take control, engage and develop the configurations, components and ways of working in the industry.
MMC is there for architects to own and propel. The next significant architectural movement could well be based around it. And what is the aesthetic of a manufactured building? Surely that is for the imagination of the architect to decide.
Jacqui Glass is chair in construction management at The Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction