Lean construction on the up

If you had asked me what “Lean Construction” was a week ago I might have guessed at something to do with towers in Pisa. However following a conference held last week by the Lean Construction Institute Ireland, I decided to find out more about this movement which may well trigger the biggest changes in the development process in a century.

The first difficulty I encountered was understanding the many definitions of “Lean Construction” that abound as Lean is variously described as “an attitude” and “togetherness.” One of the simplest I found describes Lean as “a means of organising and managing that reduces waste and increases efficiency and value for the customer, using fewer resources.” Given that multinational companies, especially in the areas of Life Sciences (pharma), ICT, data centres and wafer manufacturing (eg Intel) are using Lean Construction methods worldwide, property professionals here must understand these principles, or lose out on work.

Lean Construction is founded on taking a “team approach” to a project. With a traditional development project there is a fragmented approach and sometimes low levels of transparency and trust between the client, designers and contractors. As Paul Ebbs, a founder of Lean Construction Institute Ireland’s Core Group explains “Historically each party had a transactional contract whereas under Lean, everyone has a relationship contract. The entire development team meet from the start of the process and there is a higher level of interaction and planning throughout. All employees are empowered to contribute ideas (including outside their usual area) and to maximise co-operation with all consultants and contractors.

A practical realisation of this is the replacement of the traditional forms of building and professional contracts by an “Integrated Form of Agreement” under the process known as “Integrated Project Delivery. This allows greater flexibility in the development process and encourages cost savings. For example where a new building had a ballpark costing of €100m, the client might challenge the team to produce it for €90m. If the team produces the building for €80m, then the extra €10m saved is split, with €5m going back to the client and the other €5m split between all the contractors.

According to Mr Ebbs this team approach maximises quality and efficiency, eliminates delays on site, reduces waste and absenteeism, solves problems, reduces snagging and saves money. Another great benefit is that Lean sites are seeing a 50pc drop in the numbers of deaths and injuries. Mr Ebbs says that this is because Lean sites are better planned, cleaner and have more efficient movement on site.

Technology plays a huge part in Lean construction and more and more building components are pre-fabricated. The 3d printing of building components is a rapidly growing area and robotics are increasingly being used to speed construction. Toyota are spearheading the spread of robotic manufacturing technology and are manufacturing houses on factory production lines. Steel framed houses with wooden walls, floors and ceilings are being erected in 12 hours.

Virtual Reality is another favourite of Lean construction and by donning a pair of goggles, building occupiers and designers can walk around the inside of their un-built building to see exactly what it will look like and avoid design mistakes. Facility Managers are among those benefiting from Augmented Reality and simply pointing your smart phone at a wall or ceiling produces a plan or video of exactly where the pipes and cables are located.

Not surprisingly Enterprise Ireland are strongly supporting the adoption of Lean techniques which Dr Richard Keegan described last week as “better, faster, cheaper, together.” Several Irish multinationals are embracing Lean principles to win business abroad and construction companies like Jones Group, Mercury Engineering and Kirby are exporting Lean services abroad, winning more work, reducing costs and offering better value to clients.

Paul Boylan at Bruce Shaw is also advocating that firms embrace Lean construction techniques but stressed to me that “lean construction must be led from the top down and people must be empowered to make decisions.”