Matthew Woodley, Chief Operating Officer at FRAMECAD talks about sustainable construction, modular and light systems
As part of a series of Q&As, constructsteel is interviewing experts within the construction sector on aspects of steel’s performance and sustainability.
What construction trends have emerged from the global pandemic – and which do you see sticking around?
We’re seeing a global trend towards more systemisation and digitisation of the construction process, from design, right through to track-and-trace manufacturing, assembly, and construction either onsite or offsite. Although that trend started long before COVID hit, we’ve certainly seen a speeding-up of adoption in the last year.
There’s been a greater requirement for digital information sharing with different suppliers and contractors, mostly due to limits placed on the number of people who can be onsite at any time. A challenge with any large project is communicating changes and ensuring that they are carried out throughout the project without confusion or double-ups. We’ve worked to ensure that FRAMECAD software integrates seamlessly with BIM models, sharing all information digitally back into the master model of the building. If someone makes a change in the model, that information gets shared directly back to the FRAMECAD design software (and vice versa).
Although COVID has sped up the adoption of such technologies, this faster rate of adoption is likely to stick around because of the efficiencies gained. The BIM environment working seamlessly with FRAMECAD digital design, manufacturing, and construction phase component tracking means changes are easier to make, everyone can be kept informed of progress, and with fewer errors made.
There’s also been an acceleration in the move towards being more design-led. COVID has driven a construction environment with fewer people onsite at any one time and increasing costs to get materials to site. Builders want to ensure that they have considered every aspect of the project in advance to ensure everything runs smoothly and the most coordinated manner onsite. Because FRAMECAD is a design-led system that flows from architectural design through the engineering and detailed design stage to manufacture, we’ve seen those trends first-hand.
Full volumetric prefabrication and sub-assembly offsite is in a significant growth phase. For example, there is a big move for internal partitioning which used to largely be constructed with skilled artisan labor on site or manually fabricated offsite to an offsite automated process.
At FRAMECAD, we’re seeing more of the Industry pick up our design and manufacturing technology to automate that process – reducing the amount of waste, cutting down time spent in prefabrication, improving the quality of component parts, enjoying a much higher degree of digital design collaboration with their customers and speeding up the entire production process.
How do you see the construction industry becoming more sustainable? What role do light systems have to play?
The impact that climate change is having (and will have) on our world is a much-discussed topic. There is a lot of great initiatives actively adopted in the construction industry to ensure a lighter industry footprint on the environment. But it is an ongoing process of improvement and as an industry we know we can do more.
By way of example, we’re starting to see a genuine shift from both the industry and from end users to make buildings more energy efficient. That includes a lot of effort going into subassembly wall and roof systems that are cooler in the day and warmer in the evenings, methods for reducing direct sunlight into the building, double-glazing on windows and doors to reduce heat transfer, more energy-efficient air conditioning systems, and solar energy systems. Even paint colours that are more reflective and don’t absorb as much heat are being adopted more consciously in the design and construction of new buildings.
At FRAMECAD, we see enabling the use of those materials as part of our responsibility, so have built assembly solutions to meet and exceed thermal codes, sound transmission, and fire codes into our system. We’re collaborating with materials manufacturers such as cladding manufacturers, drywall suppliers, and insulation providers to ensure those systems are robust, available locally and certified. Although our system produces the frames of a building, we know that it’s not just the performance of the frame that matters – it’s equally important how those frameworks with other construction materials provide the most sustainable building. We’re seeing an increased uptake in systems such as dry construction methods that use less precious resources like water and produce fewer toxins throughout the construction process and the lifecycle.
Additionally, more and more businesses are turning to systems which require less transportation, so that the carbon footprint of getting materials on-site is reduced. Additionally, they’re looking for systems that require less cranage and machinery on site to further reduce carbon emissions with the added benefit of significant cost savings. That’s where cold formed steel really shines.Cold formed steel construction systems are going to be vital in achieving a more sustainable construction industry for a number of reasons. Firstly, they are very durable, so they won’t deteriorate as quickly. Secondly, steel is a 100% recyclable product, so if a building does have to be taken down, the materials can be recycled almost endlessly.
We’ve seen fantastic applications of light systems over the COVID period for temporary buildings or where tight timeframes meant other methods couldn’t deliver. Projects such as COVID testing stations and field hospitals have been erected using light gauge steel frames manufactured through the FRAMECAD system. The added benefit is that if they need to be removed at a later date, they can be; instead of being demolished and sent to a landfill, they can just remove the cladding and lining, then take it all down – either to be re-erected somewhere else or to be recycled.
What’s more, light systems have other positive impacts on the timeline and cost involved with any project – reducing the amount of civil works required onsite for foundations, reducing the load-bearing engineering requirements in building because the total building weight has been reduced, and enabling assembly using fewer skilled labourers. As more people understand the benefits and speed with which you can construct, I believe that it is a trend that will accelerate.
Finally, we need to consider waste. Construction waste has always been one of the biggest contributors to waste worldwide (an estimated 1.3 billion tons each year), and one report estimates that this is likely to nearly double to 2.2 billion tons by 2025 – that’s a lot of landfill and an enormous cost (and margin loss) to the industry. Our industry needs to embrace design-led construction if we want to combat this issue.
A design-led process enables you to plan every aspect of a project in advance and combined with accurate automated manufacturing keeps waste to a minimum. Our goal is always to have virtually no waste –everything built using the FRAMECAD system is designed and manufactured in such a way that minimises production waste and no cutting or punching is needed once the materials come off the machine.
What role do modular systems have to play in construction moving forward?
Modular systems are going to play a huge part in construction moving forward – whether that’s in the form of framing, roof trusses, or floor joists, or in complete volumetric construction (such as a bathroom module, tiny house, or even full apartment modules). We’re going to see a shift towards modular construction as the default method, especially in built-up urban areas where there simply isn’t space to stage materials and assemble them onsite. What’s more, some cities are capping the transport and storage of materials onsite.
People are looking for a more controlled construction environment which allows them to use less labour and build faster. If you’re building offsite, you’re not subject to varying weather conditions (many of which are extreme). Building in a factory or other environmentally controlled space removes so many of the restrictions that slow down construction, such as lack of space, bad weather, or other tradespeople in the way. It’s like a race car – why would you build a race car on the side of the track right before you go racing when you could build it in a controlled space fit for purpose?
Then there’s the financial aspect. If you build modules in a factory environment with automated technology and machinery that allows you to reduce waste and produce at a faster rate, you will reduce costs. However, there are a few things that we need to be aware of when it comes to modular construction. Firstly, if you’re exploring modular systems, then go with a method which accommodates any architectural design. Building in a modular manner shouldn’t restrict what you’re able to do – it should enable you to do even more. Modular construction should arrive millimetre perfect. If a module arrives with service holes in the right place, connections in the right place and load transfers between modules are correctly engineered, it will be simple to connect and faster to finish onsite.
We often have people describe the FRAMECAD system to us as an adult erect-a-set (or a Meccano set if you’re in parts of the world influenced by the UK). Just like the sets we played with as children, everything is designed and manufactured in such a way that each piece is designed to fit together with the next piece – it all just pops into place perfectly and you can bolt it together. I’d love to see more widespread acceptance of modular building and the automated systems that better enable those modules, but I recognise that moving away from a business model you’re already making money from is scary. There’s always a risk in changing your business model, but we’re seeing that the gain you get from making that change is typically always greater than the risk. When people come to that realisation, they never look back.