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Innovative, efficient, and reliable, the construction sector’s attentions are once again turning to modern methods of construction (MMC). As well as helping to tackle the UK’s housing shortage, these techniques also have the potential to support an infrastructure revolution. Andrew Cullis, risk analyst at risk management consultancy, Equib, discusses how managers can effectively balance the risks and rewards of MMC when delivering a project.

As part of its Spring Budget commitment, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) promised to establish an MMC Taskforce, backed by £10m of seed funding. Meanwhile, in the private sector, Interserve’s recent appointment of a technical director to focus on modern methods of construction shows that this is something larger companies are now factoring into their 2021 strategy.

One of the major advantages of using MMC techniques, such as off-site construction, is the net reduction in risk. These methods can mitigate the risk of injury to both workers on site, as well as members of public who live or travel close to the area. Whether it’s a traditional house build or a diversionary route on a rail project, people may be using the area during construction. This could expose them to a risk of accidents, due to the large volume of heavy plant and machinery movements in close proximity. Building remotely removes much of this risk. Off-site construction methods also have the potential to reduce material wastage, boost the reuse of equipment, and minimise the need for specialist labour onsite.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how important it is for project managers to limit the number of people on site at any one time. The Construction Leadership Council’s (CLC) site operating procedures have been designed to introduce consistent measures in line with the Government’s recommendations in relation to social distancing. Where projects have been delayed as a result of the pandemic, MMC is a cost-effective way of making up lost time while maintaining high safety standards.

The use of modular systems is one of the initiatives that the rail industry has been benefitting from for some time. Bringing pre-assembled equipment to site that can be easily plugged into the network is an effective way of boosting efficiency. Across the spectrum of off-site products, modular is the most complete in factory finish, allowing structural units to be joined on-site. These methods have been developed and standardised with signalling and Overhead Line Equipment (OLE), as well as on track with Switches & Crossing (S&C) installations.

When managed properly, modular methods can improve efficiency levels and mitigate the risk of overshooting time and cost estimates, however, across the industry there has been some resistance to modular S&C. This involves building up in situ using a modular technique, where trains can drive into the factory and collect the S&C unit before transporting it to its final location on the track, where it is then craned into place. Recently, however, a few derailment investigations by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) have indicated a possible connection to modular S&C builds. While the technique has temporarily become less popular as a result of investigation recommendations, the industry is working to ensure that the process is safe.

In the meantime, an alternative is for a team of specialists to build the units off-track in a separate location. In this case, project managers will be given a set-up time and a dedicated compound or ‘build-up area’. However, this can raise issues around land agreements and consent, which have potential to escalate project costs and cause time overruns.

In order to mitigate the risks associated with off-site construction, project managers should follow risk management best practice. They should start by carrying out a comprehensive risk assessment and analysis, in order to identify and quantify risks and opportunities associated with the project, before putting appropriate mitigation strategies in place. Specialist support may be needed in carrying out workshops with major stakeholders to secure buy in for any cost contingencies required.

Despite their potential to reduce the overall risk profile of projects, off-site construction methods can also bring associated risks such as time delays linked to transporting modular units onto site or prompt investigation of more extreme safety concerns. In some instances, these risks can be critical, therefore, careful management is required from the outset of projects. By conducting detailed and meticulous risk planning during the design stage, managers can minimise the need to rework designs mid-way through, which could push the build back by weeks or even months.

As well as design considerations, logistical factors such as how to transport modular units from the factory to the construction site should be prioritised. Detailed route planning, specifications around load/size requirements and liaison with third parties (highways, local councils etc.) can all help to reduce risk. While this can be time consuming, its importance shouldn’t be underestimated.

Once the project is underway, project managers should ensure that thorough risk identification and assessment sessions are undertaken at regular intervals. Sticking to this approach, from the design stage through to completion, will ensure good decision making and improve project outcomes.

In recent months, the construction industry has undergone a significant transformation. The pandemic has been a force for change and the sector must continue to adapt and modernise to stay competitive. For project managers, this as an opportunity to increase their knowledgebase and breadth of experience by utilising new technology and the benefits it brings to projects going forward.

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