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A pre-fabricated crisis

March 2019 Issue

How many of you contributed to the government’s recent consultation for the snappily titled P-DfMA (Platform Design for Manufacture and Assembly)?


Didn’t think so... well done - me neither.

Unfortunately the initiative, conceived primarily for the government’s £600 billion spending on infrastructure over the next ten years, was forced onto the radar of house-builders by various unhelpful parties serving their own unrelated self-interests. You were easy targets (...thanks Persimmon...).

This meant Construction Consultants capturing the odd-headline with talk that house-builders should be adopting a ‘Google Android’ style platform on which they could develop their own styles of houses (like App’s ...really?). While those press-hungry consultants presumably achieved their aim - i.e. publicity for themselves based on giving house-builders a bit of a kicking while using the word ‘Google’ a lot, it’s difficult to start unpicking this pathetic comparison without getting cross about the waste of time and effort in doing so. That said those same self-publicists also tried to reinforce this utterly misconceived idea by comparing the house-building industry with the car industry (yawn), in which car-makers are able to drive efficiency by developing various model types on top of a shared platform (chassis in old-world speak).

The car industry platform argument is an old one - but what car makers don’t generally do is develop shared platforms between two different manufacturers, brands yes, companies no. The platforms are their for that company’s own competitive advantage. Think VW, Seat and Skoda - all much of a muchness underneath - but serving different sectors of the market above (reliable, emotional, cheap etc.) - basically what British Leyland were doing in the 70’s but better. British Leyland didn’t get as far as the platform bit. In fairness they struggled to get very far at all (Austin Allegro anyone?).

What’s also annoying is the suggestion that the problems that exist in the new-build housing market are something to do with a lack of pre-fabrication. That’s nonsense. Pre-fabricated ‘car industry’ style housing has been available for decades - in America they’re called Trailer Parks and no-one wants to live there - in England we call them Caravan Parks and stay there for our holidays. On the commercial front Portakabin have been doing a roaring trade in Pre-Fab’ building since the sixties and have spawned many competitors. More recently we have seen a huge increase in the use of pre-fabricated components within buildings, be they bathroom pods or kitchens. All of that driven by different companies competing to provide better products at a lower price.

Alternatively let’s think of what ‘standard’s can do for innovation. Take the typical UK 3 pin electrical plug - designed to British Standard (BS)1363 - pretty much the default in Part P of the Building Regulations. It was designed in 1947?! It’s not a design classic, it’s not a Swiss Army Knife, its a big, chunky horrible thing that should have been innovated away years ago but the ‘standard’ has kept it alive. It’s also agony to stand on if you leave one lying around unplugged at home. Seriously - do you really feel less safe in a German Hotel because the plugs are different? I’m not against Standards by the way - but they’re a baseline - they’re most useful as a measure of innovation when you’re breaking them.

I can just about see the case for improved ‘P-DfMA’ for Civil and Infrastructure works - but mostly we’re talking pipes of one form or another. And when it comes to roads and bridges you can see why the aspiration for more pre-fabrication would be attractive - as so much of those works are about shovelling around earth and pouring in-situ concrete - but housing? I don’t think so.

The number of new-builds started in the UK for 2017/2018 was 157,480, which was actually a fall against the number of starts in 2016/2017 of 163,000. And both of those numbers are woefully short of the governments annual target for new dwellings of 300,000 or so. Additionally those numbers are flattered by the distorting effect of ‘Help to Buy’ incentivising new-build starts and conversion within the wider housing market. Without it the numbers would be even worse (once again ...thanks Persimmon). In any case - do any of you really think that the fall in numbers is because those new-builds weren’t sufficiently pre-fabricated? On top of this the UK currently has ‘live’ planning permission for well over the annual target of 300,000 new homes which are not being implemented by your colleagues in the industry - is that really because they’re trying to work out the practicalities of pre-fabricating them? Or do you think it might have more to do with the lack of confidence in the market that our ongoing UK political theatre is creating.

We already have a platform for building houses on - it’s called land. The standard we need to re-discover is a clear sense of the rules, regulations, demographics and regulations of the market those houses will serve. When confidence and clarity return so will the houses.

Perhaps by the time you read this we’ll have them both.

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