It’s time to end DfMA and take a wider view of construction

Tadpole Garden Village in north Swindon was created in close collaboration with the local community.

All parties need to work more collaboratively to achieve a more sustainable, profitable and attractive construction industry with an improved impact on society, says Keith Waller.

Terms like DfMA (Design for Manufacture and Assembly) and MMC (Modern Methods of Construction) seem omnipresent in our industry. But by simply describing a process to improve how we build, they do not explain how this will enhance operational performance or deliver benefits to users and society.

Of the around £200bn construction sector in the UK, we invest about one third - over £60 billion each year - in our economic and social infrastructure. This means improving our schools, hospitals, social housing, roads, railways, airports, flood defences, utilities, power networks and much more.

What should UK plc expect from this investment? This is not just about whether we can build cheaper, faster and safer – we can. It should also be about creating inspiring places to live and work and effective ways to move between them. It is about making the most of our built environment, delivering more and better for its users, owners and operators.

If like me you share this ambition, then we must think beyond the project – the capital phase – and consider how the built environment performs throughout its life – a key theme of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority’s Transforming Infrastructure Performance initiative. And, crucially, it is about delivering better economic, social and environmental outcomes from this investment. Our challenge is to redefine 'value', so we don’t just think 'cheap'.

This is not something the construction industry can fix by itself.  It requires all parties, in particular government and clients, to measure value differently in terms of the outcomes they want delivered. It must support not just an improved deal for taxpayers, users and industry, but for society as a whole.

"We must consider how the built environment performs throughout its life. Crucially, it is about delivering better economic, social and environmental outcomes from the investment that's made. Our challenge is to redefine 'value' so we don't just think 'cheap'."

There is now a real opportunity for the public sector to step up to the plate. Government must be bold in setting out its ambitions as it heads toward the next Spending Review. In fact, its own Green Book and policy to consider social value in procurement actively encourage such an approach. But these are not yet consistently applied, often constraining industry with input-focused, process-driven procurement. No one is calling for another ill-conceived, multi-lot, zero-value framework, and yet . . . 

So, if not “DfMA”, what instead?  What should we be designing for?

Yes, we should be designing for a modern delivery process consistent with digitally-enabled manufacturing and assembly. But we should also design for sustainability, for resilience, for whole-life performance; we should design to build in flexibility, accessibility, interoperability and security-mindedness; we should be supporting communities, building capability and opening opportunities for local business.  We should use smarter, shareable data that drives performance and informs decision making. And much more. 

Therefore, we shouldn’t be designing just for manufacturing and assembly; we should be designing for all of the factors above, the sum of all of these parts – Df∑.

We also need to start asking different questions: How sustainable is the production process?  Do we understand where materials and products have come from, who produced them and how? How much waste are we creating? How much carbon and energy are we using? Are the businesses we are engaging with ethical?  Do they invest in skills, promoting a more productive workforce? Do they pay their suppliers in a responsible way?  

So, what does this mean for government, for clients, for designers, for contractors and for product suppliers? Answering these questions is a key part of my role helping to transform construction.  

Already we are engaging with government departments, building a fuller picture of what data they have and how they use it to inform their decisions.  At Futurebuild, between 5-7 March, the Construction Innovation Hub team will set out how industry can engage to help us kick start this transformation.   

I believe passionately that seeking better outcomes delivers better value. But for businesses to invest in the skills, solutions, products and methods that deliver these outcomes, then government and clients must get in the habit of both asking for and valuing them. Only then will construction be able to transform into a more sustainable, profitable and attractive industry with an improved impact on society.

For twenty years we have spoken about MMC and DfMA and, whilst they have their place, now is the time to embrace Df∑.

Keith Waller is the programme director for the Construction Innovation Hub.