Examination of Witnesses(Questions 320-339)|
WEDNESDAY 30 OCTOBER 2002
320. So, at the minute, it may only be providing
a marginal element of the need.
(Mr Sherwood) That is correct.
321. What would it take or what would you want
the Housing Corporation to do in order to deliver more?
(Mr Blanshard) It is not just the Housing Corporation,
it is that you around this table need to enthuse about off-site
manufacture. What we are not trying to do is copy traditional
construction which is slow, out of date and pathetic really because
the customers are always late with their builds. So, you need
to enthuse about off-site manufacture and we need to encourage
322. You have to convince us this morning that
this is something we can enthuse about!
(Mr Blanshard) There is a way of convincing you and
that is for you to go and look at the production line and go from
flat steel to finished product inside two hours and then to a
block of flats and actually talk to the people using it. That
is one way you will achieve it.
323. Tell us a little more about the production
process and how much can be produced off-site and how much needs
to be done when we get on-site.
(Mr Blanshard) If you produce a module which is a
large room or rooms all in one module, then it means you can do
the internal fit-out as well, so you do bathrooms, kitchens, carpets
and you can even put the picture on the wall. That is down the
production line. You then transport that module to site and bolt
all that steelwork together and therefore you have created a large
building. You then clad it on-site to whatever the planner wants
or whatever the client wants. So, you are still making a building
using traditional materials but what we are doing is changing
the process, we are not changing the materials.
(Mr Sherwood) And there is a lot more that suppliers
can do to help this happen. They are not doing it yet because
building things in a factory is very different to building things
in the muddy field. We could actually handle a piece of plasterboard
the size of that wall, but of course a building site cannot because
it has to handle sheets that can be lifted by two people and taken
into a property. We can actually handle that size and, if our
suppliers supplied us with that size, that would greatly assist
the process. There are a number of other examples of the types
of things that can be supplied: wiring looms for the electrics;
and the plumbing could be made in a totally different way to what
it is now.
(Mr Blanshard) We still buy a radiator from one supplier
and a thermostatic valve from another, which is quite pathetic
really, and I need a plumber to put the two together. I am restricted
with the size of plasterboard sheets that we buy in British gypsum
because they are only interested in eight feet by four feet sheets
of plasterboards. I am not really interested in that; I want something
that is a lot bigger. Opportunities are considerable from the
324. And speed from the initial materials to
actually putting it on-site and having it as a working house?
How quickly can that be done?
(Mr Blanshard) The history of putting up the ones
that we have done from Murray Grove and one or two others is that
it is about 50 per cent faster than what you may define as traditional
construction. It takes us about five days to put up a five-storey
block of 12 apartments and we have done that.
325. What share of the market do you have? How
quickly could the market expand if more people decided that this
was actually a serious way forward?
(Mr Blanshard) I do not know what the size of the
market we have is. We have never really measured it.
(Mr Blanshard) No. We find it quite difficult. You
can add up how many houses people want and things like that, but
then you can add up how much we produce and it is so small in
relation to the two.
327. Not the prefabricated houses?
(Mr Blanshard) The definition of prefabricated . .
. You can have a panel system or you can have a modular system;
it is just very small percentages at the moment.
(Mr Miles) I have looked at this from a pan-industry
point of view and the percentage of the market that is taken by
off-site fabrication at the moment is very small. Although there
are certain systems, like some of the timber-framed systems. They
do have a significant hold in the market, but they are only partial
off-site solutions as opposed to a full off-site solution that
Keith Blanshard was talking about. The big picture at the moment
is that there is very small penetration of the market by off-site
fabrication methods and producers and that is why there is opportunity
for great expansion of that sector and the only question is, why
would you want to expand it? I think there are probably three
key drivers as to why it might be something that we are going
to see expanding very rapidly over the next few years. The first
is simply strangulation, that there is not the capacity in the
industry as it stands at the moment to deliver the number of houses
that we know we are going to need. That really comes about because
of a decline of on-site skills and the lack of apprenticeships
over a period of 20 years, which is now an endemic shortage and
is very difficult to repair. So, if we are going to deliver at
the rate that we know we need houses, even maintain the current
rate, we have to do something to increase productivity. So, issue
number one is strangulation and off-site fabrication hugely increases
the productivity per worker. Secondly, there are some issues which
have to do with the standards that we set for our housing and
there is both legislation and planning guidance which are setting
higher and higher standards progressively, which is a good thing,
but it takes beyond the reach of conventional building technology
some of those issues, like sound insulation and thermal insulation.
Again, off-site fabrication offers the opportunity for fully engineered
products to be delivered which do meet those requirements in the
same way that fully engineered products like cars and white goods
have met inexorably higher standards and actually reduced real
costs over many years historically. The third reason why we think
there is an opportunity for this segment to be hugely expanded
is simply because of customer expectation. Customers are aware
of the fact that they get much improved products today for prices
that are no more than they used to pay in real terms 20 years
ago and they are beginning to expect the same from their houses.
The Housing Forum, of which I have until recently been a director,
conducted a number of user surveys and set up now a site full
of user surveys, which will be annual or bi-annual, and it is
clear from those that league tables for house builders, rather
like the JD power league tables for car manufacturers, will become
the vogue and issues like quality, reliability and performance
are high on the customer agenda. So, those three reasons are the
things that are driving this particular issue at the moment, but
the thing that is holding it back is the point Keith Blanshard
made which is capital investment. There needs to be a state of
confidence on behalf of the emergent suppliers that will allow
them to put the money in at the front of what we hope will be
a burgeoning activity, but that climate of confidence needs to
exist and that, at the moment, is the issue which is holding it
328. I am quite sure that during the 1960s in
a room not dissimilar to this one, we had the same discussion
and developers were no doubt telling Members of Parliament and
councillors just how wonderful prefabricated construction was,
but much of that has now been demolished because it was not of
very good quality at all. I know you have said, "Come and
see" but I am quite sure that people went then and saw them
and were convinced that it was a good idea, but it did not turn
out to be a good idea. So, how can we be satisfied that design
quality will be maintained particularly as we have just heard
about pressures of productivity and pressures for mass production?
How can you be satisfied that in the long term we are going to
maintain this quality that you say we have at the moment?
(Mr Blanshard) I think one thing you have to start
off with is the quality of the design. What was designed before
was rubbish and you were delivering to site pieces of wall, bits
of panels and things like that. We are not talking of doing that.
We are actually making the building down the production line,
so you are in a more controlled environment. So, you have to start
off with a quality design and CABE is on board now with the Housing
Forum, so they have an advice to give to that side of it, to the
Housing Corporation and things like that. We have history, so
we can look back at these sort of things.
329. So we have learned the lessons, have we?
(Mr Blanshard) Definitely, absolutely, and I think
technology is around now, where materials and testing and all
these sort of things are going on which are a great deal more
sophisticated now than they were in those days. My opinion is
that we will not be reproducing the rubbish that was produced
(Mr Miles) There is a context to that question which
should not be forgotten and that is, if we do nothing in this
country to change the way in which we deliver housing, there probably
will be, on the one hand, a slowdown in the delivery of houses
because of the shortage of skills and, on the other hand, a dilution
of quality for the same reason. So, we are looking at a situation
which is far from perfect if we look at the status quo and continuation
of the status quo. I think that your question has to be seen in
that context. Nothing is perfect. I think we would be foolish
to say that there are no problems that cannot be anticipated.
My point is that there are plenty of problems that can be anticipated
by an extension of the status quo and therefore it is a balanced
330. A number of private developers building
new housing estates tend to build a variety of properties on these
estates to make them more attractive, but is not mass production
in danger of giving us a monotonous sameness all over the place?
(Mr Miles) We would not call it mass production for
exactly that reason because, when Henry Ford made his famous statement,
the economies of producing in a factory was because you did the
same thing every single time and it was because of that that you
had repeatable quality and a reduction of error. If you look at
that same industry now, the car building industry, most manufacturers
will say that they never build the same car twice because there
is an almost infinite permutation of customer options.
331. They all look the same though, do they
(Mr Miles) We could have a long discussion on this
point. They certainly do not all perform in the same way. The
point is that, with today's manufacturing systems, it is not necessary
for them all to look the same. That has to be a key attribute
of any product that comes out of the factory that is designed
for housing. It cannot possibly be that that only can look the
same every time it is repeated. The systems that are being designed
now with which I am familiar, what I might call generation two
systemsgeneration one system is a product that we developed
for some other reason and have now brought to housingare
beginning to come through now and have been developed specifically
for housing in the first instance right from the drawing board,
and one of the key requirements is that it should be flexible
both in terms of exterior appearance and interior layout.
332. Mr Blanshard, you touched briefly on this
and did you want to follow up on that point?
(Mr Blanshard) We have the components which have the
building regulations approvals, they have the sound, fire and
insulation, all these sort of things and they are all in place.
It is really the clients and the planning officer and that sort
of environment which will drive the external fenestration. A client's
internal fit-out will be driven by his requirements, but the production
line and the standardisation of making walls and floors and rooms
in any shape possible is already there.
(Mr Sherwood) The choice of external treatments is
to the imagination.
(Mr Blanshard) We do not have a choice, do we? The
planners will drive it, the clients will drive the different external
fenestration of the building.
333. We do have a choice and what we do needand
I think this was touched on by Mr Milesare the necessary
skills to be able to produce the kind of quality that we want.
Apparently that is a problem; is that correct?
(Mr Miles) I do not think it is a problem in the factory
context because the numbers of people required in a factory are
fewer than the number of people required on-site. My point about
shortage of people is shortage of skilled labour in the traditional
building skills on-site, like plumbers, carpenters and bricklayers.
Those skills are on a downward trend and it will take a generation
to replace the gap that is opening up.
334. What about in design using certain(?) plans?
(Mr Miles) I think in design this country has an excellent
armoury of skills. I think Britain is actually recognised as a
design leader in many areas of product and engineering, so I think
there is no shortage of skills in that area.
335. We have all been here before, have we not?
You are trying to convince us that their new scheme and method
of doing something is going to deliver maybe not quality now but
quality in 30 years' time and I cannot think of a single system-built
form of housing that has not had major structural problems, can
(Mr Miles) Yes. There are a number from the 1970s
that have not had major structural problems, but they are not
widely publicised of course. I can take you outside this room
and show you some.
336. So there are some?
(Mr Miles) Yes.
337. Can you name them for us?
(Mr Miles) I cannot name them offhand but I could
arrange to show them to you.
338. Can you give us a note because that would
be very helpful and we can go and have a look at them.
(Mr Miles) Yes, of course. There was not an endemic
problem within the systems in the 1970s in the sense that off-site
fabrication led to these problems. The problem of the 1970s was
that some were done well and some were done not so well and the
ones that were done not so well became very newsworthy. There
were some that, in a technical sense, were executed very well
indeed and have required very little maintenance.
339. There is a technical sense and the theory
sometimes that these are going to work and you are saying that
a lot of your work is done off-site, but in the end some is done
on-site to put things together.
(Mr Miles) Yes.