22 January 2021

Off-site construction faces up to the new issues in building!

Off-site construction has the wind in its sails. Boosted by ecological transition demands and the consequences of the pandemic, this construction mode is becoming a key lever in the transformation of the building industry. By prefabricating whole sections of a building in the workshop, the construction industry addresses many topical issues. Update with Pascal Chazal, director of Patch Conseil, a specialist in off-site construction.  

Pascal Chazal,
director of Patch Conseil

What, in a nutshell, is off-site construction and what does it offer?

Off-site construction means producing high added value building parts in a workshop— not just timber frames and wall panels but also bathrooms, hotel rooms, care home quarters. Up to 30, 40, even 80 percent of a building can be prefabricated away from the building site, and it comes with many advantages, like the development of regional competitiveness, increased company productivity, or creation of local jobs. We are completely in phase with the main objectives of the economic restart plan. 

How does off-site construction address the labour shortage in building?

Qualified labour is desperately lacking. 80% of building firms and contractors just can’t get the people and are calling on posted workers from abroad. It's a major problem at all levels for the sector, from architects to main contractors by way of drywall installers or joiners. Off-site construction, like any other industry, doesn’t rely on “trade” skills and thus can compensate for this deficit. Bathrooms, hotel rooms, and more can be made in the workshop by workers who are less qualified but properly supervised and trained, because the process is industrialized. By shifting production hours from sites to factories, our actions favour French employment.

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What is off-site construction’s answer to environmental issues in the restart plan?

The labour shortage gives rise to many problems like quality, productivity, profitability. Building firms who have greatly reduced their investments are falling behind in their R&D. Off-site construction can be a good lever for them. With prefabrication taking place in the factory, the building limits its carbon impact by better management of materials and optimization of transport. Bear in mind that sites order construction materials in significantly greater quantities than necessary to account for theft, breakage, deterioration. With prefabrication in the workshop, only the necessary products are made. Furthermore, recycling is easier to organize, with separation of waste in skips and ongoing partnerships with specialized firms who are better able to handle volumes on a single site. 

Besides the circular economy, can you also speak about limiting transport?

Off-site construction can enable an 80% reduction in transport related CO2 emissions. Building sites, mostly located in urban centres, demand lots of movement of people and materials. Workers travel an average 80km from home to site. They use vans to reach their workplace for months on end. Can you imagine how many kilometres that adds up to for all the people travelling to and from a site? With off-site construction, as in the rest of industry, workers live an average 10km from their factory and that represents a big reduction in the carbon footprint. Also, carbon issues aside, it's a win for nearby residents as the duration of site work is halved on average.


What are the conditions of success for off-site construction?

Success comes by way of major changes in the approach of property and construction stakeholders. The whole sector needs to reinvent itself. In the 2020 French environmental regulations, there’s a push for timber without recognizing that it actually involves off-site construction. A different approach to design and organization is needed, one that avoids designing from scratch each time and replaces concrete with timber. For off-site construction to work and to address profitability issues, the process must be globally integrated. It's a way of thinking that focuses on prefabrication first and then and only then on the building site!


How do you expand the use of off-site construction?

For off-site construction to become more widespread, industry and construction must work more closely together. That’s what I did 12 years ago when I took over a SEB factory together with all its staff. At the time I was running the OSSABOIS business and wanted to industrialize my production. 
Today, building and industry ecosystems have realized the mutual interest of creating bridges between them. Stimulated by the pandemic crisis, projects are emerging. Like in the Eiffage group, which during the lockdown has conducted many projects involving off-site construction. 
The UK recognized the advantages of off-site a long time ago. British stakeholders plan on building 75,000 prefabricated homes a year in the near future, creating 50,000 jobs on the way. Here in France, we’re only just waking up to the interest of off-site.

Find out more on off-site construction

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