Darren Richards, Managing Director of offsite construction consultancy, Cogent Consulting, describes a radical vision for the way new homes might be delivered in the future and where timber technology can play a leading role.
Once again there is a climate of change in the UK housebuilding industry, but we have been here before, so what is different this time around? Market forces are pressuring house-builders to reconsider their approach to serving their customers. Government action in terms of planning guideline relaxation, Building Regulation changes, the rapid emergence of the private rented sector, the development of the Custom-build concept, the roll-out of large public sector consortia programmes and a continual move towards more sustainable building techniques has combined to force a ‘rethink’ of housing design and delivery from the grassroots upwards.
A window of opportunity has opened for offsite construction solutions– including timber technology – to take advantage.As house buyers are becoming more assertive and the housing market shows signs of developing in the way of other consumer markets, the crucial question has to be, can offsite technology bridge the gap between design-for-production and design-for-living?
The industrial revolution provided new and vastly improved materials, notably steel, glass and reinforced concrete, along with repetition, standardisation and mass production. The digital revolution offers new methods of design and construction. The characteristic housing type of the industrial era was the high-rise residential tower with its repeating unit plans and elevation details. The typical home of the post-industrial age may be computer-customised, with designs varying to reflect the diversity of the population, its needs and its preferences.
The potential offsite construction technology holds in creating a new revolution in the 21st century is huge. Manufacturers,software developers, engineers and architects are promising to transform the housebuilding industry with a mixture of computer-aided design (including Building Information Modelling) and the latest in industrial manufacturing technology – panel systems, new methods of stick building using ‘field-factory’ technology and modular volumetric construction.
The latest ideas could turn the construction industry’s traditional hierarchy of homebuyers, builders and architects on its head. 

Every home ‘individually’ designed 

The vision is that new houses could be designed and built in a completely different way – a way that puts the responsibility for design not just on architects but on the people that will buy the dwelling and live in it. Not just in the Custom-build sector either but across all sub-sectors of housebuilding. Rather than simply purchasing one of the many faceless boxes on offer, every new homebuyer would sit down with an architect (or manufacturer) and design their home exactly the way they wanted it.
This is the radical opportunity that offsite construction technology presents, with efficient design processes, BIM, CAD/CAM linked production facilities and even the possibility of ‘on-line’ designed dwellings using configuration software.To make this happen we need ways to simplify – or even partially automate – the design process. There simply aren’t enough architects around with the detailed knowledge or understanding of offsite technology and the related manufacturing processes, for it to be possible with conventional design or construction processes.
Just as important, there is a need for cost-effective ways to translate these designs into innovative construction solutions. There is also a requirement for new manufacturing techniques for the construction industry to produce custom-shaped elements in whatever size and material the designs call for.

Replace mass-produced with mass-customised

The result could be an expert system that offers the user the skill and experience traditionally provided by an architect or designer, but as a software package with an easy-to-use interface. Car manufacturers have moved towards similar processes, and this industry is regularly cited as the ultimate model for the offsite construction movement. The general idea is to replace mass-produced, standard models with efficiently mass-customised ones.
The achievements of the car industry – reliability, customer choice and affordability – have been delivered through a revolution in manufacturing processes and technology. This has advanced the delivery of consumer products from an environment in which mass-production dictated a stifling uniformity of output, to one where production systems deliver a bewildering array of high quality, low cost products. This transformation has yielded the philosophy of continuous improvement that is now second nature for most manufacturing sectors. 
Flexible production systems, supported by lean manufacturing strategies, today underpin an ability to satisfy unprecedented levels of customer choice. It delivers goods of extremely high quality and reliability at affordable prices. As part of this, good design is recognised as an essential pre-requisite for a successful product and this is the opportunity facing the manufacturers of the new offsite construction housing solutions. 
The efficiencies of mass-customisations really begin to emerge when you take automation beyond the design stage. The panacea is to integrate a customer’s on-line design with flexible computer controlled manufacturing. In other words, the information generated on-line should drive the house production line – this is the ultimate in process integration and it may not be as far away as we might think. These processes are already well advanced in the Japanese housebuilding market, where nearly 50% of housing is built using modular volumetric construction techniques designed and delivered to the customer’s specification and choice. 
Modern architecture has relied heavily upon industrially mass-produced elements such as bricks, blocks and tiles. In an extreme form this has given us industrialised components and building systems such as the precast concrete post, beam and panel systems that were popular in post war times, and which produced some remarkably grim housing. Computer-controlled, mass-customisation using offsite methods can free design and choice, opening up the possibility of creating buildings from an unlimited number of individualised parts.
The elements of architectural composition need no longer be translations, rotations and reflections of simple shapes. Once CAD and automated assembly plants are integrated, the possibility of radically new architectural languages opens up.
So the opportunities are certainly there, but given the choice will we really want to make all our houses different? Will homebuyers choose to express individual difference, or conform to some norm? Will they choose the excitement of innovation or the comforts of tradition? Where, in the end, is uniformity bred in your technology or in your head?