Off site construction – a benefit of Brexit?
FRANKLIN D Roosevelt famously stated “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”. But if you've opened a newspaper in the last 24 months, everyone is being told to be afraid of Brexit.
This isn't another negatively tailored (fear-mongering) article to worry everyone about the implications of Brexit. Save for some miraculous intervention, it is happening whether we want it or not. The construction industry in Ireland, both north and south, must prepare, and embrace the changes and opportunities that will come from Northern Ireland leaving the European Union.
Although we are unsure of any ‘special status' Northern Ireland may receive from the EU and the rest of the UK, we can be certain of some form of disruption occurring throughout Ireland come Brexit-time.
It cannot all be doom and gloom though. So what opportunities can Brexit provide to the construction industry in Ireland?
In March 2017 a Building Services Research and Information Association (BSRIA) White Paper identified that besides the obvious emphasis being placed on international trade with the US and Asia, as well as a potential streamlining of any regulatory framework, there should be a focus to boost the domestic skills base and innovation of construction methods.
This innovation and forced efficiencies must be an outcome of Brexit due to the impact leaving the customs union will cause trade and the movement of goods and services. The most obvious work around for the construction industry to deal with an increased limitation on resources will be the promotion of offsite construction and a pre-modular approach to building works.
For the uninitiated, ‘offsite construction' is exactly like it sounds. As opposed to bringing materials, plant, equipment and greater labour forces on site, and constructing in often constrained or small working areas, the alternative is to fabricate and assemble elements (and sometimes whole buildings) offsite. After this, the components are brought to site to finish the construction. Think a famous Swedish furniture company's business model, but on a much grander scale.
This approach can allow quicker build times, more efficient use of work force and would encourage the use of digital technology during build, as most of the construction will be carried out in factory conditions with easier access to test technologies.
There has been a stigma in the past that offsite construction does not provide the highest quality build. To me, these are merely growing pains with any development in industry. By comparison, the original ‘brick sized' phones of the 80s aren't as attractive as the slick smart phones everyone has now, but we wouldn't have the latest gadget in our pockets if it wasn't for the innovators back then.
Ireland is already embracing the use of offsite construction, with housing associations leading the way and seeing the benefit of this already, with high quality homes, fully fitted-out or turnkey, being produced quicker, cheaper and easier.
Brexit, with all it issues and complications can be seen as an opportunity for Ireland, both north and south. Its just a matter of accepting and embracing new ways to develop and innovate.
Ultimately, it is not the fear of Brexit, it is the fear of the unknown that is plaguing the industry. Although there will be difficulties, it will provide opportunities to develop and innovate. Who knows, Brexit might just be the kick in the right direction to move Ireland into a new efficient way of getting things built.
:: David McNeice (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior associate (construction and infrastructure) at DWF Belfast (www.dwf.law)