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Setting the standard

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An industry study of prefabrication and preassembly sets out challenges for all stages of projects BY BARRIE EVANS

As the Latham and Egan reports have highlighted, there is significant client dissatisfaction with the way buildings are delivered in terms of time, cost and quality of work. One industry response has been renewed interest in the potentials of increased standardisation and preassembly. In principle, increasing standardisation - in broad terms, building on the experience of what has worked successfully before - should provide more predictability in the delivery process and consequent cost, time and quality improvements. Preassembly ought to help too, providing the quality control of the factory in the face of declining site skills. (Those in any doubt about continuing skills decline should inspect the rendering of the new Sadlers Wells.)

Designers are well-aware that standardisation does not necessarily lead to design atrophy, though some clients may seek it to curtail innovation. It is not just architects like Foster and Rogers who are increasingly taking a component approach to building. Indeed the disciplines of standardisation and preassembly may lead to new thinking and thence design innovation, notably in the ultra-conservative world of housebuilding.

Standardisation is not just about using standard components or modules. While predominantly about such technology, the recent report, Standardisation and Preassembly, points out that there can be many potential points of departure for standardisation:

processes: procurement routes, it use, project management, site processes, maintenance

documentation: briefing, tenders, contract documentation, document management, technical literature, maintenance manuals

components, assemblies: details, specifications, site plant, off-the- shelf products, replacement parts, maintenance specifications

standard buildings and facilities.

Like the man who had been speaking prose all his life without realising it, we are all involved in standardisation. All the above are parts of the industry's service with potential for improvement.

The report, mainly by Laing Technology, Arup and Loughborough University, combines the results of a literature search, workshops, studies of manufacturing in other industries and examples of preassembly (clasp, McDonald's, etc) to provide a state-of-the-art in construction industry thinking on standardisation and preassembly. Sadly, as presented, it is mostly old news, and very repetitive. I lost count of the times the reader is told the theoretical benefits of standardisation.

The report does list a range of hindrances to practical change, such as lack of appropriate skills and sharing experience, and the fragmentation of the industry. Surprisingly, the designer's cultural imperative to start from scratch is not given a mention - maybe times are changing. But this list of hindrances comes near the end of the report. It is not a jumping- off point for exploring how to effect change in the industry.

Measurement is one essential component of demonstrating the value of changing the way we work. As the report points out, smm and its like do not effectively address the costs and benefits of process changes such as standardisation. Some work is being done on new measurement methods, though so far mostly on the detailed effectiveness of site processes.

One practical suggestion is a 'recommended procedure for optimising standardisation and preassembly'. It is in effect a value-engineering of the delivery process; it needs to take place at an early stage of design. Not least for the reasons that new shared procedures need preplanning or that process changes reshape project programmes.

The report has little to say about developments in procurement routes. Yet standardisation of technology and preassembly requireS early involvement in projects of people with construction skills. This in turn implies developing the existing forms of management methods or D&B rather than the traditional route.

While the report's case studies of other industries offer few specific pointers for construction, their overall message is of industries very focused on the disciplines of production engineering and strategic organisation. These disciplines tend to be weak in construction, which often bills itself as a people industry. A noble sentiment, but missing a trick. There is, of course, no standard formula that can be adopted, not least because clients shape projects. Suitable aspects of standardisation and preassembly are needed to fit each client agenda.

This report can be read as a sign that the industry's culture is changing. Hopefully it will be the last such report, trying to re-explain the benefits of standardisation.

Broadly what is needed is 'how to' guidance and examples (warts and all) plus the ability to provide hard evidence early in projects that there are cost benefits to working differently.

Standardisation and Preassembly: Adding Value to Construction Projects CIRIA Report SP 134. Tel 0171 222 8891. 220pp. £50

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