Chapter 5: Offsite Construction Skills
Offsite construction has been a growing manufacturing sector for the house building industry in Scotland over the last decade. Offsite construction is one of the largest domains within modern methods of construction (MMC). Investments by companies in new offsite manufacturing facilities and previous support mechanisms, such as the Scottish government greener homes scheme, have helped transition such approaches. Many of Scotland’s homes include offsite construction systems varying from modular or volumetric whole house approaches, closed panel wall and floor systems to specific offsite roof systems.
With current and future demand increasing for new housing delivery in Scotland and the UK, adopting greater use of offsite construction could assist new housing ‘superstructure’ delivery. Offsite construction has additional benefits through waste reduction, enhanced performance through controlled construction, alignment with BIM (building information modelling) approaches and can reduce on-site demand for some traditional skills.
Offsite also assists with productivity through closer B-2-B supply chains and design for manufacture approaches, reduces incorrect onsite product replacements and provides opportunities for inspection during manufacture and increased quality control. In itself offsite is not a panacea for solving new housing delivery but it is an essential ingredient to contribute to increasing supply when traditional construction approaches and skills are in short supply.
Offsite Solutions Scotland (OSS) involving nine Scottish companies provides a co-operative approach to developing training, innovation and delivery. In 2012 a Strategic review of offsite construction in Scotland  identified a number of recommendations from industry to support the sector’s future growth, including:
1. Recognition in the public procurement process for future housing sites,
2. Investment in offsite training facilities,
3. Future recognition in Technical Standards (Scotland) Section 7: Sustainability of the benefits from offsite sector.
The SLWG heard from OSS, CCG’s offsite manufacturing division and Edinburgh Napier University’s offsite construction experts of the benefits and delivery via offsite. It was stated by industry that to assist future investments by companies in Scotland for new facilities and offsite training skills provision requires a known future pipeline of offsite demand. The sector could grow significantly if there were procurement frameworks and guidelines which required offsite delivery. Large sites in particular provide the opportunity for offsite partnership approaches, (e.g. Glasgow Commonwealth Games) and for knowledge sharing to maximise the delivery and skills benefits.
Public procurement routes for new housing, which request offsite construction systems, via government or local authorities could also help trigger pipeline activities, manufacturing investment and skills development. Homes England  recently announced their intention to promote and encourage offsite construction via procurement routes. Given Scotland’s knowledge and expertise in offsite construction there is an opportunity for the sector and skills to grow with the right balance of ‘procurement enablement’.
There is some offsite training provision provided by CSIC in Blantyre and at South Lanarkshire College. Scotland’s College Partnership ESP have also established close working partnerships between some of Scotland’s offsite companies and local colleges. Currently there are research projects investigating offsite construction involving CSIC, CITB, Scottish government and Scotland’s universities.
Whilst partnerships between offsite companies and local FE college partners is a positive step there are limited training routes and generic information on offer. Recent publications for offsite by Structural Timber Association (STA) and CITB provide some basic elemental training aspects, however the sector requires a significant increase in training provision both for offsite manufacture and ‘offsite-onsite’ skills development. Investment in such provision to support the FE and HE sectors enhance learner content and delivery would assist the sector’s skills provision and reach.
Currently there is no centralised skills training facility for ‘offsite onsite’ which would support training for site managers, site inspectors, erection teams, building control, housing association and local authorities. The development of an offsite training academy both physical and online would help the sector widen the skills training reach and provide a more inclusive platform particularly for rural areas.
Due to the majority of offsite construction being manufacture based it requires a number of different aspects and activities during the build stage. This provides a platform for companies to train staff in a range of skills. The sector has for some years requested to have a recognised training platform, such as an MA, which can integrate a diverse range of skills and thus provide an offsite trainee with a portfolio of multi-skills. Development of such a qualification would enhance and recognise the skills provision the sector uses and requires. The Forster Roofing Academy has set a precedent on how such an approach can be provided for a specific sector involving a range of skills that do not sit within a traditional MA route.
The development of a multi-skills or offsite MA qualification could be undertaken in partnership with the industry skills trade bodies to ensure that it did not conflict with specific trades which require specialised registration and certification. Limitations on whether for example electrical works would or would not be included would have to be identified early. Inclusion of training provision within an offsite MA may for example include specialised tooling, machinery operations, fitting of insulation, membranes, windows, facades and onsite erection and logistics.
The offsite approach also shifts the majority of the component build operations from the external environment (on-site) to a controlled assembly (clean-tech offsite) environment. This may also be more attractive for some to consider entering the construction sector and may also assist diversify the workforce.
As mentioned in Chapter 2 in terms of short terms skills and supply shortages for bricklaying, the use of some offsite constructions systems, which can also incorporate external linings (e.g. insulated render boards or brick slip panels), provides an opportunity to adopt alternative outer layers systems. This could reduce some of the short term pressures on bricklaying skills demand through a widened portfolio of design external layer material options. At the same time this would assist housebuilders who currently specifically require bricklaying skills supply to utilise the existing workforce. This may ‘buy time’ until current bricklayer MA apprenticeships have qualified and the workforce supply has increased.
Upskilling and supporting architects, structural engineers and also clients to better understand and consider offsite solutions and innovations available, can also assist in increasing the use of offsite construction approaches from inception and early design stages. This could also form part of the offsite training academy and a future ‘client focused’ outreach programme.
Whilst much of the focus of the SLWG was primarily in relation to future skills supply and training for delivery of Scotland’s future new housing there are additional wider economic benefits for Scotland to grow the offsite sector. This relates firstly to the export potential for offsite systems beyond Scotland’s borders, whether rest of the UK or overseas. This would generate additional income, increasing Scotland’s manufacturing base and help support a more sustained order book. Secondly, if more offsite construction was adopted, which can increase output and delivery within Scotland and reduce other skills pressures, this provides additional benefits for those considering to invest in Scotland (for housing and non-housing future projects), as there would be increased market investor confidence of future delivery, supply and skills being available.
R.5.1 To introduce procurement pathways and new housing sector frameworks to encourage Offsite/MMC approaches specifically for larger sites – would provide an enabling pipeline platform for industry to invest further in offsite skills and Scotland’s manufacturing capabilities. Note: such frameworks and procurement pathways should not infringe SME entry into this sector and preferably should encourage collaboration between different company sizes for such projects. This supports knowledge sharing across such partnerships, combined skills and innovation developments and greater supply chain benefits and geographic spread.
R.5.2 Support the development of growing the supply of future offsite skills, such as an offsite training academy.
R.5.3 Support in the development of multi-skills for offsite.