The use of modern construction methods in a post Covid environment

When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is comprised of two characters – one represents danger and the other represents opportunity.  I can’t lay claim to knowing this personally – for that I am grateful to the late John F Kennedy who referred to this in one of his political campaign speeches. 

For the construction industry one opportunity amidst the current crisis lies in embracing modern construction methods that can reflect and accommodate the changes that Covid has brought to the way we live and work.  It is important that employers (those who engage contractors to undertake development) embrace the possibility of utilising such modern construction methods where appropriate.

 

Modular construction in the brave new world

Taking modular construction as an example, historically it has been given a bad name.  People often equate modular construction with cheap and poorly constructed housing that has no sense of individuality.  However the reality is far different and has been for some time.  Yes, modular construction is used to construct uniform buildings, such as student accommodation and prisons.  Yet modular construction is also being used to construct high end housing, offices and other commercial space.  From the perspective of an employer under a construction contract the benefits of modular construction should not be overlooked.

In the current climate the use of modular or off-site construction offers some obvious advantages. 

  • Social distancing – Construction off site means that you do not have a series of trades operating in close proximity.  This in turn promotes social distancing and reduces the risk of trades having to self-isolate. 
  • Reduced delays – The ability to engineer modules in a controlled warehouse environment (with a greater reliance on machine rather than manual labour) traditionally means reduced delays.  Historically this was because such methods are not generally delayed by adverse weather conditions and have the advantage (if construction processes are automated) of running 24 hours a day. 

 

Construction in a Covid world is inherently uncertain.  Therefore the ability to minimise the risk of delays and uncertainty is ever more important.  There will be certain types of delay to a construction project that modular construction does not eliminate, but by the same token there will be some project delays that modular construction can methods can inherently minimise or remove.

  • Quality control – This is ever more relevant at a time when traditional skilled labour (whether one considers the uncertainty over Brexit, the effects of Covid or a general lack of skilled tradespeople entering the workplace) is in shorter supply.  Modern construction techniques and the automation of construction can often mean modular construction is of a higher (and consistently higher) quality in general terms.
  • Sustainability – More than ever, developers are requiring contractors to employ environmentally friendly construction methods.  Modular construction ticks a number of boxes in this respect.  By undertaking construction in a controlled environment, energy consumption will be significantly lower than with a comparable traditional build.  Put simply, as the construction process is mapped out the energy consumption required is a known quantity and does not go unnecessarily to waste. 

 

A similar principle applies to the use of construction materials themselves and the amount of material that can otherwise end up in landfill.  Noise pollution is reduced if the bulk of construction work is carried out within a warehouse rather than on site.

 

Finally, modular construction methods can also increase the prospect of recycling buildings  Consider the example of a modular-constructed block of flats.  In theory, a modular construction methodology could enable floors within that block to be removed and re-sited elsewhere.  From a sustainability point of view, modular construction has much to offer.

 

Challenges of modular construction

This is not to say that modular construction is a panacea.  While there have been a number of high profile moves into the modular construction space the use of such methods is still very much in its infancy when compared with traditional builds.  That brings its own challenges, both practical and legal. 

For example:

  • What would happen in the event of a contractor insolvency mid-way through a project?
  • How easy would it be to bring in a replacement contractor on a modular project?
  • What does this mean for step in rights?
  • How willing are funders to embrace modular construction methods?
  • Do we need to re-invent what is meant by ‘design’ in a design and build contract.  Is design a drawing, a computer program, or both?
  • Who owns modules before they are installed and do retention of title provisions need to be revisited?
  • How are methods of inspection, supervision and monitoring of work to be regulated?
  • Do modular construction contracts require a different approach to valuation and payment (including the amount of any retention and the use of performance bonds to protect against a failure to deliver a finished module to site and then install it)?
  • To what extent do we need to revisit the traditional definitions of (using the JCT terms as an example) Relevant Event and Relevant Matter to reflect the use of modular construction?

 

 

Modern forms of construction contract

It is clear that the use of modular construction needs to feed into modern forms of construction contract.

While there is some movement in this respect (the NEC4 form of contract has an accompanying guidance note aimed specifically at modular construction), thought does need to be given to what amendments, if any, are required generally to cater for modern construction methods, to reflect the delivery of a project or elements of a project off site.

Not all projects lend themselves to the use of modular construction. But even then, there may be elements of modular construction that would be incorporated within a traditional build.  As such, contracts need to be flexible enough to cater for the use of both methods in a project. 

While the construction industry is ever changing, there is clear potential for the adoption of such methods and this is likely to be accelerated in a Covid and post Covid world.  All of us in the construction industry would therefore be wise to adapt in our projects to an increase in the use of modern construction methods going forwards.