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EEJ: Inside an Engineering Enterprise

DfMA in housing

The UK is currently tackling a major housing crisis, with not enough new homes coming onto the market as the industry struggles with skills shortages, price inflation and the materials supply problems inherent with traditional construction. Factory-built units, delivered to site for final assembly, offer a way to deliver more homes, faster and to new levels of quality.

Laing O’Rourke is challenging and changing the face of residential construction in the UK by extending its Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) philosophy to deliver fully complete housing units. The Group has begun work on a new advanced manufacturing facility, which, once complete, will have the capacity to produce up to 10,000 factory-built homes per year.

The investment is in response to the UK’s acute housing shortage, where parts of the country are experiencing soaring property prices and rents as demand outstrips supply. There is currently a need for around 250,000 dwellings per year, yet last year just 141,000 new homes were delivered.

‘The industry doesn’t have the necessary number of skilled workers to meet the demand. So we need to find smarter ways of creating more housing,’ says Daniel Gray, Architectural Director, Engineering Excellence Group, Laing O’Rourke. ‘A number of our clients are finding it difficult to have certainty over completion of projects that are delivered using traditional onsite ‘brick and block’ methods. The supply chain is becoming increasingly fragmented. The skills shortage has inflated the cost of labour – and this will only intensify as the industry comes out of recession and the opportunity pipeline returns to pre-recessionary levels. The price of goods and raw materials is also rising, which places increasing pressure on selling prices. And then there’s the ageing workforce, problems with inclement weather and so on. This is creating a ‘perfect storm’ within the industry, that will require a radically different approach to delivery.’

There is another way. Laing O’Rourke is investing in a new advanced manufacturing facility that will produce contemporary homes to unprecedented standards of quality, offering a range of units created in a highly controlled and automated factory environment. This revolutionary housing solution is called E5+.

‘The thinking behind E5+ is to deliver an automated, advanced manufacturing, volumetric solution, which has wide application from single-storey residential units, through to pitched-roof townhouses, terraced houses, mid-rise mansion blocks, right up to high-rise projects of circa 20 storeys,’ explains Gray. ‘We are developing a flexible, adaptable product solution which enables us to apply it to a wide variety of contexts and client requirements.’

Laing O’Rourke is developing highly detailed, multidisciplinary engineering and architectural solutions to create housing units that have all of their internal finishes, tiling, bathrooms, kitchens, windows and façade elements seamlessly integrated in a single factory environment. ‘That way, we can ensure a top-quality product, which – once delivered to site – will be brought together by a multi-trade team of assembly technicians, who will install the modules at a rate of eight to ten per day,’ says Gray. Laing O’Rourke is gearing up to produce 10,000 units per year at peak in the factory. ‘By performing 90 per cent of the work in a factory environment, it’s far easier to control the output from a time, cost and quality perspective simultaneously – and that’s as much about people as it is about processes,’ says Gray. ‘In a factory environment you’ve got a stable employee base, trained specifically for the jobs they’re undertaking, utilising the very latest technologies. They are therefore able to complete complex tasks to the required specifications, and an unprecedented level of accuracy and repeatability.’

Importantly, this also has the potential to encourage a more diverse workforce. ‘The stereotypical image of the construction workplace is pretty unappealing to younger generations: hard labour, bad weather, noise and dirt, limited opportunities to broaden experience and progress,’ says Gray. ‘While this might not be the reality, there is at least a grain of truth to it. So it’s hardly surprising we’ve got a skills issue. 

‘Some people thrive on the itinerant nature of construction, but for others, moving from site to site just doesn’t suit their lifestyle needs. Being able to offer professional ‘careers’ in a permanent place of work should help us attract a broader pool of talent – especially women and young people.’ The factory is an extension of the Group’s offsite manufacturing capabilities at Explore Industrial Park in Nottinghamshire. It will create jobs for technical assemblers, digital designers and engineers by embracing leading-edge process technology, advanced transportation methods and devices such as Google glasses to update operatives on their task schedules. Robotic welding equipment will replace hand-held welders to produce precision-engineered products time and time again. Manufacturing is linked to the digital engineering models developed during design which have been exhaustively tried and tested first in the virtual world. 

The DfMA approach combines a robotic production line with the skilled technicians’ years of experience to deliver units ready for site assembly. Modules come complete with wiring looms and harnesses, for example, already installed, quality assured, electrically tested and certified fault-free. Precut fireboards from numerically controlled cutting equipment can be created automatically from the digital model, and installed using manipulators in an ergonomically and controlled way before being moved on to the next station in the production process.

There are many benefits to the DfMA approach to housing. It delivers a solution that gives much greater certainty to the outcomes of projects, absolute guarantee of handover dates and defect-free quality by moving construction away from site to a controlled factory environment.

‘From a performance perspective, we anticipate a 30 per cent improvement on energy consumption over traditional projects,’ says Gray. ‘For example, because we are manufacturing within a factory environment, the high-quality build means there is less likelihood of air leakage and the quality of components that we are using will deliver an optimised solution.’

Units will include high levels of insulation and intelligent building management systems that can adapt to how occupants use their energy and whole-house heat recovery systems.

Laing O’Rourke’s combined expertise in precision engineering, DfMA, complex logistics management and construction delivery will be transformational. Industry research indicates that the average construction site loses up to 50 per cent of the working day due to poor productivity, causing delays and rising costs. In a highly automated environment, an apartment unit can be manufactured in less than half a day, and a house assembled to an exceptional level of airtightness in one day, ready for occupation in just a week.

Laing O’Rourke will be collaborating with a number of leading residential developers and supply chain partners, who share the Group’s vision to bring innovation to the sector. The cutting-edge accommodation solution has been designed specifically to meet the needs of the market, catering for different lifestyles in a variety of contexts, to create vibrant new communities for people to live in. By combining the traditional benefits of a UK home, with future-proof scalable construction systems, the Group can offer a suite of contemporary designs in a choice of finishes.

Any new accommodation proposition needs to strike a fine balance, meeting both the challenges of the UK housing market and the individual demands of the end user. E5+ will be an accredited solution that is mortgageable and engineered to achieve an industry-recognised minimum of 60 years’ design life. Units are designed to form part of desirable neighbourhoods that are safe and affordable. This solution allows the Group to produce the right product, deliver in a timely and effective manner, ensuring that meets the needs of the occupants and is worthy of a significant and lasting investment.

Daniel GrayArchitectural Director for the Engineering Excellence Group

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