Laing O’Rourke’s Product Based Building Solution – Demonstrating better faster and greener

Adam Locke Europe Hub Technology & Innovation Programme Leader, UK
14 min read

Can you prototype a building? Yes you can. And that is precisely what we've done.

Based in Nottinghamshire, sits the company’s Explore Industrial Park, home to Europe’s largest construction manufacturing facility, The Centre of Excellence for Modern Construction (CEMC); and alongside that sits a hub of building and infrastructure innovation. The innovation hub houses prototype bridges, new modular lift solutions for tall buildings, and a demonstrator building that seeks to prove a concept that, by using a system known as Product Based Building Solutions (PBBS), the industry will have the capability to deliver quality buildings with greater certainty and speed, and with lower carbon.

For more than a decade, Laing O’Rourke has been a pioneer of change, investing in the design, manufacturing and assembly capability, skills, research and development for modern methods of construction (MMC). Led by our Technology & Innovation team, the research and development in train today will provide solutions for a better, faster, greener built environment of the future.

Adam Locke, Programme Leader in the Europe Hub’s Technology & Innovation team, speaks about the Product Based Building Solutions Demonstrator.

"After a period of collaborative planning with industry and academic partners, the project brought its thinking to life, building a prototype; a demonstrator building that would allow the team to test their concept.

The industry has defined a strategy to deliver higher performing, more certain and productive, and more sustainable approaches to design and delivery, using digital and other innovative technologies to attract the talent of the future. Transitioning to a platform approach to construction is part of this strategy.

At Laing O’Rourke, our investment into MMC has helped drive change throughout the industry. We have been at the forefront of embedding new approaches to design, manufacturing and assembly capability, skills, research and development for more than a decade.

We used our experience to develop solutions to the next level: the Product Based Building Solutions Demonstrator showcases how integrated building products can be used to create quality buildings at greater certainty and speed, but with lower carbon.

The project was co-funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as part of the Transforming Construction challenge in conjunction with Converge, AMRC, Autodesk, ActivePlan, BRE, Hoare Lea, the University of Cambridge, and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at the University of Sheffield.

The demonstrator uses our previously prototyped frame system and integrates the full building through MMC facades, internal walling and pods, and building services solutions. Its aim is to demonstrate a physically and digitally configurable ‘kit of parts’ applicable to a range of sectors, specifically education and residential but relevant more widely including for example healthcare and commercial.

We further added to this an Innovate UK-funded project, Better Greener Faster Facades, in collaboration with Ramboll and Etude. Together the programme saw us develop six new products and enhance six others to exceed our incumbent 70:60:30 performance benchmark and deliver Laing O’Rourke’s next generation performance to target:

  • 50% reduction in design effort;
  • 40% reduction in manufacture lead time and 25% labour saving;
  • 70% reduction in on site labour vs traditional construction;
  • 50% saving in onsite assembly time vs traditional construction;
  • 50% improvement on embodied carbon;
  • 30% improvement of in-use carbon performance.

The project also demonstrated our ability to integrate MMC components at full scale; incorporating a supply chain from conception through to assembly, develop trades to technicians by use of smaller, multi-skilled teams able to streamline assembly, and reduce carbon by taking out materials, for instance saving 65% through reusable horizontal distribution module frames. It further considers longer-term operational controls and monitoring through demonstration of our wireless controls and sensing technologies.

In addition, it allowed us to develop our digital toolkit, comprising a working prototype of a Digital Twin; a cloud-based product library of components; a kit of parametric configuration tools; and a working prototype of a unified data environment to host the digital model, data, and documents.

A new approach to project design

A key transformative element of the project was to develop the physically and digitally configurable kit of parts. The objective is to be able to have reusable designs of standardised components that then can be configured to meet the needs of each sector and individual building. Perhaps what was of greater significance than each individual component, was how the elements integrate to provide a whole building. The interfaces between components are critical to unlocking design standardisation, as well as the certainty and productivity of both offsite manufacture and on site final assembly.

Completed demonstrator, with classroom to the left and residential unit to the right.

Product set used in the demonstrator building.

Mechanical and electrical fit-out kit of parts.

The structure begins.

Performance wall bathroom pod lifted directly into final position.

Timber concrete composite D-frame plank.

Structure complete.

Glazed facade sandwich panel lifted into place.

Glazed precast hybrid facade panel.

Glazed hybrid facade panel showing rainscreen panel alternatives.

Hybrid facade large brick-finish and glazed panel.

Building services with removable and reusable transport frames.

Interior of performance wall bathroom pod.

Precast hybrid and steel frame backed facade panels, completed.

Internal view of classroom.

Internal view of apartment


However, delivering to customer choice is also critical to create a successful building system, and part of the initial stage of the project was to set out those items that were needed to cater for the needs and desires of different building customers and users. This gave rise to our approach of “customising the visible and standardising the invisible”.

To focus and prove the concept of the design and integration of the component set, the team designed a demonstrator building - comprising both a classroom and a residential apartment. Both spaces integrate these repeatable units, for example, a school and an apartment building. If we could design and demonstrate how the structure, the building services, the façades and bathrooms would all fit together – for example how the ventilation ducts route from a utility cupboard, through the structure and into the façade – we could then replicate these base units with confidence throughout the rest of the building.

Achieving these far-reaching goals requires collaboration and an openness to share learning. Laing O’Rourke worked closely with PBBS project partners, combining expertise from industry and academia to create a better, faster and greener solution.

Wherever organisations require construction services - safety, compliance and competency are paramount, especially when considering the Buildings Safety Bill. Our PBBS approach utilises novel methods to address this from the very start of a project. Working with our partner, Dynamic Knowledge, we can use artificial intelligence (AI) and Natural Language Processing (NLP) to assess, catalogue and deploy competent staff who are multiskilled on PBBS projects. Debbie Carlton, Director of Dynamic Knowledge, noted that this approach presents an opportunity to address the scarcity of competency facing the entire industry as well as driving smart resourcing on projects that can be evidenced, giving clients peace of mind.

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Think of a building or construction project as a system, not as a list of construction workers or tradespeople. By using machine learning and proper data deployment we can finally create an understanding of construction resource which is vertical, horizontal and longitudinal.

Debbie Carlton Director of Dynamic Knowledge

Adam continues: “Through this approach we can determine the competencies and skills required to lead a project, how we resource with a leaner, but multi-skilled team, and how we analyse data and learn from every project to deliver continuous improvement. New approaches are also required on site to plan and monitor how we use materials. The environmental benefits here are obvious, but smart technology, when deployed correctly, can help us understand and improve productivity and provide increasingly accurate models for project duration.

Working with technology partner, Converge, we can deploy sensors and analytics and part of our products and processes of “kit of parts” approach to construction. Through Converge’s technology, we can analyse and automate the handling of pre-cast elements. Technology like this allows us to understand how long it takes to install construction elements, measure wastage and predict project timeliness.”

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This type of automation is a massive step forward for an industry that is generally under-digitised. Through surface mounted location trackers, we can measure lifting rates, productivity gains, installation times and wastage. We can effectively deliver tangible, measurable and reportable gains with obvious environmental benefits.”

Gideon Farrell CTO and co-founder at Converge

Picking back up, Adam says: “This technology provides physical intelligence with a layer of software on top. The whole concept delivers centralised data in ways the industry has struggled to deliver before. What’s more, you can use this data in the future; to plan better, provide clients with insight and real support with their objectives.

The PBBS Demonstrator Trial

We built our demonstrator building at our Centre of Excellence for Modern Construction, (CEMC) in Nottinghamshire where we also manufactured concrete structural and façade elements. This trial assembly allowed us to measure and record the time and productivity throughout the delivery process. The success and learning here enabled us to understand how we refine and scale the concept, and how we can apply across our projects and sectors.

On site we used innovative pre-cast ribbed floor slab elements, saving 30% of material and associated carbon against a full flat slab construction, with components that can each be installed in 27 to 47 minutes on average. Each element of the construction is also designed for rapid integration with other components including façades, pods and internal walling.

Our PBBS assembly team took just 30 minutes to install bathroom pods into the demonstrator building, and as quickly as 18 minutes to install our concrete based fully glazed façade panels. The gains are clearly huge, attributed to refining our approach and learnings across multiple projects, as well as the high level of standardisation and integration of the units. Moreover, these capabilities help to provide programme certainty for clients.

Manufacturing and delivery logistics required careful collaboration and preparation with our supply chain partner, PSP Architectural / PSP Aluminium, who manufactured steel-framed hybrid façade panels – offering an essential choice of rainscreen finishes. This allowed us to install eight panels across two days, each one taking our small assembly team just 15-30 minutes to land into place. But most importantly this allows the building to become weathertight, letting us efficiently progress with site implementation. It’s a major step forward in productivity.

Our partnership approach, as well as overall focus on project design and implementation, has led to other efficiency and productivity benefits. We drew upon our experience delivering modular pre-manufactured horizonal and vertical distribution modules to projects across the UK, including Manchester Airport’s terminal two redevelopment, Henry Royce Institute, the new Royal Liverpool University Hospital and for the new Elizabeth line's Liverpool Street Station in London. We filtered these through our understanding of residential and educational construction needs to create the best solutions for these environments.

Our teams developed a lighter weight segmental vertical riser designed for easier installation. Usually, a crane hook would be needed to put a riser in place but our solution, which uses hoists and a two-person team, saw initial installation in under 20 minutes. Our horizontal module has been engineered to use reusable transport frames, and it can also be installed in 20 minutes by a crew of three. Both solutions were designed and produced at our Crown House Technologies manufacturing facility in Oldbury, featuring a 50% reduction in permanent steel framing and saving on the cost of materials and cutting carbon.

By working with supply chain partner, Apex Wiring, we produced a prefabricated utility cupboard containing all the apartment’s ventilation, heating and electrical equipment. Made in controlled off site conditions, it was easily and quickly installed on site. To accelerate the fit-out installation of wiring, we trialled four different plug-and-play supply chain products, proving ease of installation and, when coupled with the wireless mesh lighting control systems, the on site installation and commissioning times were cut by up to 80%.

Our strategic approach to PBBS has undoubtedly led to clear benefits for our trial sectors. These learnings can be applied across project types, across other sectors and have lasting, tangible value. As a demonstrator project, not everything was immediately perfect, that’s the very reason we conducted the trial.

There have been over 150 documented learnings from this project, and they will allow us to test, refine, and improve at every stage of construction. Some things we could improve immediately, especially across the supply chain. Our trial has allowed us to understand the challenges and we’re now in a better position to plan these projects and ultimately deliver a more streamlined approach.

Our partners, BRE, conducted running tests on the structural performance of the frame which also incorporate Converge sensors. BRE also carried out a range of tests on the completed building and a measured air permeability. For the technical among us, that air permeability was less than 1 Pa, and therefore passive house standards, for the classroom.

And our partner, AMRC is helping us to further speed up manufacturing, with Dynamic Knowledge analysing the multi-skilled team.

Success and the future

First and foremost, we have demonstrated that the “kit of parts” approach works. It will lead to design efficiencies, environmental benefits and eventually, better results across the construction supply chain. We have demonstrated the multiskilled assembly approach, with the ability to deliver a high-quality, airtight integrated building which is hugely important when factoring in the sustainability of what we build.

We were able to reduce our relative labour on the project, compared to traditional construction, by our target of 70%, with over 70% of the building being premanufactured and delivered in just over two weeks by six people. More importantly, it is scalable - with scope to expand into residential blocks, school buildings and hospitals, the things that are supporting people to have a better life. This PBBS trial has provided us with the data to help us do that.

With the demonstrator building complete, our next phase is to work with our customers and partners to implement and scale-up our findings in these projects. We will use the demonstrator building as an example and reference, allowing stakeholders to come and see the work themselves, while we also look for opportunities to further test innovation.

Taking you through the journey of our PBBS


The PBBS research and development project was led by Laing O’Rourke in collaboration with:

  • Active Plan – focused on digital requirements capture and consistent lifecycle information
  • Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (part of University of Sheffield) - looked at manufacturing processes and simulation
  • AutoDesk – used Kit Connect in the project
  • Building Research Establishment (BRE) - provided assurance, testing and accreditation
  • Converge – supplied the wireless concrete sensor technology
  • Dynamic Knowledge – AI-based competency requirements and analysis of improved delivery systems
  • Hoare Lea Engineering – focused on design efficiency and lifecycle performance
  • Project Frog – developed the cloud based ‘Kit Connect’ digital configuration
  • University of Cambridge – researched thermal performance prediction

The UKRI Transforming Construction Challenge co-funded the development of PBBS including the demonstrator building.