Coatings producers will have to adapt to radically different supply chains with their major end-use customers being modular system manufacturers rather than traditional builders.
With the exception of a few countries in northern Europe like Sweden, prefabricated or offsite construction has a poor image because modular building systems are equated with the cheap, low grade homes built in large numbers after World War II.
Now the offsite manufacturing in factories of house components for assemble onsite is starting to go through a revival. This is mainly because advances in modular technologies and materials are ensuring that prefabricated houses can at least equal, even exceed, the quality standards of traditionally constructed homes.
Furthermore, they provide a solution to many of the problems which have resulted in the supply of housing in many countries falling short of the pressing demand for affordable homes among those on low or even average incomes.
One of the biggest of these obstacles are shortages of skilled labor in construction, even of professional painters. “The skills shortage is becoming more acute in almost every category,” said Lloyds Bank, London, in its 2018 report on the UK building sector.
Offsite manufacturing of modular components can also considerably speed up the supply of houses by completing them up to four times more quickly than with conventional methods. In many countries – particularly in northern Europe where wet or cold weather can cause delays – a high proportion of housing projects are not completed on time.
Prefab techniques are also an effective way of meeting current needs for low-energy housing through the application of efficient insulation systems and the use of construction methods with a low environmental impact due to their ability to reduce waste to a minimum.
For the construction coatings sector, however, the shift to modules will usher in big changes not just in the formulation of products but also in the workforce that applies them.
“With traditional house building a lot of the work is done on site,” explained Piotr Drabik, an executive at the Polish offsite manufacturing specialists Mabudo. “We are keeping that labor force to a minimum by concentrating as much as possible of the work done on-site in our offsite factory.”
He was speaking at the Ecobuild show in London in March (2018) where offsite construction had the biggest share of space among the major building segments.
In terms of prefab’s share of the domestic house building market, Sweden is the leader in Europe with over 80 percent of its newly built detached housing being modular, mainly prefabricated timber components, according to a recent study.
In the Netherlands, the share is around 20 percent. In Germany, which has a long-established offsite sector of around 10 percent, public sector authorities as well as the construction industry itself see modular systems as providing an answer to housing shortages.
The country likely to record the fastest growth in offsite business over the next few years is the UK, where prefab has only a current share of approximately 5 percent. But with the UK government setting a target of 300,000 homes a year against present supply of around two thirds of that, the modular sector is being boosted by a surge in both private and public financial support.
Some of the country’s biggest UK house building companies have been investing in offsite construction.
Legal & General, a leading UK insurance company, has invested in the largest home-building factory in Europe in Sherburn, England, with 500 employees and an annual capacity for 3,500 homes.
The sector has also been attracting funds from abroad. Saint-Gobain, the French building materials and construction products company, acquired Scotframe, owners of two Scottish-based offsite manufacturing sites.
WELink Group of Dublin has combined with China National Building Materials Co. to form Live Verde, an offsite manufacturing joint venture in the UK with the aim of building 22,000 homes annually by 2022, which could make it the country’s largest modular housing developer.
“The UK offsite market will grow very rapidly over the next five years with an annual growth rate of as high as 50 percent,” said Rory Bergin, partner at HTA Design, London, speaking at the Ecobuild show.
His company, which is at the forefront of an expansion of the UK modular segment into high rise buildings, is currently working on two 135-metre residential towers in Croydon, south London, which would the two tallest modular buildings in the world.
At present, most of the painting of modular components is done manually by brush or roller in the factory of either the module manufacturer or the suppliers of panels and other components. Often this is done in a multi-skilled setting with the demarcation between traditional trades becoming blurred so that, for example, carpenters are if necessary doing painting work.
“There are opportunities for people like coatings producers because there is a great need in the offsite market for a greater variety in design and colours,” said Bergin. “Suppliers and offsite manufacturers need to talk to each other more about ways of adding value.”
The potential for automation in offsite operations could differentiate the sector from its traditional counterpart even more deeply.
Some offsite businesses have a long-term objective of setting up assembly systems which will be similar to those in automobile production.
The Legal & General facility, making what it calls ‘precision-engineered homes’ rather than ‘prefabs,’ will be run like the assembly line of an automated car plant. “The assembly line transformed the automotive industry,” the company says in a vision statement. “Labour became fully trained and highly skilled, quality became paramount, materials and components were honed to be fit for purpose.”
Digitalization will be applied to cut costs dramatically and also to use coatings to provide a wide range of colors and textures. “The digital economy will have a big impact on the modules sector,” said a commercial manager of one modular technology specialist at Ecobuild. “As in the automobile industry, there will be automated systems for applying coatings so that there will be more use of intelligent, smart coatings and of special effects.”
Some pundits reckon that in the UK at least the offsite sector will be in such a strong cost-competitive position that it could soon account for around half the new-build market.
“Offsite could shortly gain as much as a third share of the UK housing market with traditional building and refurbishment also having a third each,” said Bergin.