Government plans to standardise construction through digital technology could result in a “Google-style” revolution by creating a standard “platform” for building parts akin to Google’s Android operating system.
That’s the view of Mark Farmer, chief executive of construction consultancy Cast and author of the Farmer Review, following this week’s news that the government has launched a call for evidence on using a standardised platform approach for delivering the UK’s £600bn infrastructure pipeline.
The proposal would mean a set of digitally designed components used “wherever possible” across a range of government construction programmes, replicating the way manufacturing is done in the automotive sector, where multiple car designs can use the same chassis and the same core parts.
It is hoped that the approach would allow designers and engineers to invest in manufacturing different elements, safe in the knowledge that a common design code will allow those parts to be used seamlessly, in the way that coders can create apps that work seamlessly on any phone running Android.
Farmer, who is leading the construction standardisation research commissioned by the Greater London Authority, said: “Creating a common platform in construction would mean standardising the ‘chassis’ of a building – so parts of the structure, pipes, wires, panelling and internal spaces can be mass-designed – while cladding, brickwork and elements designed by architects would still get wrapped over the top, on more of a project specific basis to satisfy planners.
“As well as revolutionising the car industry, a platform-led approach has enabled the smartphone industry to be one of the most innovative on the planet because Google’s open source Android operating system lets all manner of firms create standard apps that fit inside hundreds of phones.
“The proposals are essentially about operationalising the chancellor’s 2017 Budget commitment and moving towards platform-led design for the manufacture and assembly of buildings will help encourage innovation at a particularly crucial time for the economy.”
Farmer warned that the nascent offsite manufacturing market is currently fragmented and “has no commonality of design or inter-operability of components”, which meant a lack of standardisation and consequently increased costs.
He added: “Last year’s Budget committed the government to ‘a presumption in favour of modern methods of construction’ for civic projects across education, healthcare, prison, defence and transport infrastructure. But it is important this occurs across the whole industry and creating a standard platform for construction – a bit like Google’s Android operating system – is an important first step.
“Ministers are proposing a digitally-led manufacturing strategy spanning all levels of pre-consolidation. This will enable a truly scalable, more open source response from the supply chain to a standardised product design platform and will hopefully lead to more demand-led manufacturing innovation and a new family of multi-skilled manufacturing and assembly-led skills for the workforce.
“Subject to the outcome of the consultation [which ends in February], the critically important further element of success for this initiative will be the implementation through intelligent procurement of such approaches by the public sector and a move away from pure lowest capital cost bespoke design and construction solutions towards performance led predictable outcomes.”