Alternative solutions

The skills shortage has been the topic of great discussion within the construction industry for many months, with factors such as Brexit and the difficulties in attracting young recruits often thought to blame for the effect on our country’s construction workforce. With this in mind, housebuilders, developers and contractors are increasingly looking for alternative solutions to the more traditional building methods. Rod McLachlan, Offsite Category Manager at Marley Plumbing & Drainage explores further, here.

The skills and labour shortage that the construction industry is currently suffering is a commonly publicised issue. Indeed, it is estimated that Britain must recruit over 400,000 people each year in order to meet the rising housing and infrastructure project demands – the equivalent of one person every 77 seconds. As well as a shortage of new recruits entering the industry, there is also a reported lack of skilled labour, with one in 20 construction companies reporting that their tradespeople do not have the range and level of skills required. The possible causes of this deficiency in supply? With 22% of the current workforce said to be over the age of 50 and rapidly approaching retirement, Brexit, and a mere 9% of young people reportedly considering a career in construction, it is clear that there are many factors in the equation. 

The plumbing sector is just one area of construction currently being impacted by the labour shortages. Not only can this cause difficulties in terms of successfully completing a project within the required timescale and to the expected level of quality, but it can also drive up labour costs, with skilled labour increasingly at an all-time high premium. As a result, developers and contractors can often be seen looking for new ways to work around the modern-day challenges. 

It is, therefore, perhaps timely that the industry as a whole is also increasingly looking to evolve and modernise its approach, with a rise in the uptake of more innovative methods, including off-site and modular construction. While the most commonly promoted benefit of off-site and modular construction, compared to the more traditional techniques, is its speed of construction, it also provides significant advantages when considering the industry’s labour shortage. With a building’s structural components fabricated and pre-assembled within a controlled factory environment before being transported to site, where they then only have to be lifted and fixed into place, minimal skilled labour is required on site. 

So, how does this translate to the plumbing sector? 

Within high-rise properties, the soil and waste drainage systems can be immense and extensive, with main stacks running throughout the building and a complex network of smaller pipework branches connecting the individual services to the main stack. 

Understandably, the time and labour required to carry out such installation work, which would include having to measure, cut, install and weld each individual piece of pipework, can be huge, potentially posing problems should the contractor be struggling in terms of a skilled labour force. 

Some manufacturers have readily responded to this challenge by providing a fabrications service to its customers, such as Marley Plumbing & Drainage, which offers made-to-measure prefabricated stacks. 

The common procedure is, first, for technical drawings to be created for each individual stack element, ensuring that every detail is both to specification and fully compliant with the current regulations – providing developers and contractors with peace of mind that the drainage system will perform as expected once in-situ. The soil and waste stacks are then fabricated and welded together in a controlled factory environment to exact project specifications, providing additional assurances of the drainage system’s end-quality. 

Another aspect of traditional soil and waste system installations that ordinarily requires additional time and dedicated labour is the need for each individual pipework element to undergo pressure testing. Unlike traditional building methods/practice, where the pressure testing is carried out on site, prefabricated stacks can undergo pressure testing within the factory environment easily and efficiently, with any issues detected able to be rectified promptly, preventing costly re-work from being required later on site. 

Finally, upon being delivered to site as and when required, saving on valuable site storage space as a result – a key concern on urban city developments – the prefabricated stacks simply then have to be lifted into position and connected together. This subsequently minimises the need for hot works on site, such as the standard butt welding or fusion welding assembly procedure for HDPE pipework – a skilled task in itself.   

While it is common for the benefits of speed, efficiency and quality to be at the forefront of discussions around modern methods of construction, it is also important not to forget its role in helping to combat the issues presented by the labour and skills shortage. Indeed, with fewer young people entering into construction, many skilled workers reaching retirement age and the great unknown of Brexit, it is evident that the labour shortage is a complex and multi-faceted issue. 

Fortunately, however, many manufacturers are responding to these industry challenges, including those within the plumbing sector. Liaising with a manufacturer who offers a fabrications service for its soil and waste drainage systems can be hugely beneficial, helping to save time, ensure a high-quality performance and, most importantly, place less pressure on requiring a large, skilled labour force on site, with the measuring, cutting, welding and individual pressure testing all carried out within the manufacturer’s factory facilities. 

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