Specwall-LB

Factory-built load-bearing walls that transform the productivity of house-builds.

Last updated: 5th November 2020

Date uploaded:

Approved for use

Innovation Lead: Hannah Gibson
Project number: 105884
UKRI funding: £447,125

Website:
specwall-alliance.co.uk/


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Summary

Specwall-LB helps us build houses with greater ease, accuracy and efficiency. Wall systems normally built onsite and are heavily labour, skills and weather dependent, can now be manufactured entirely offsite in factories as modular load-bearing panels that can be used in multi-story builds. The result of academic and industry expertise working together, Specwall-LB's precise manufacturing processes mean the walls are produced accurately and delivered to the site pre-finished, insulated, sound and fireproofed, and ready to paint - making light work for the site team. They can even be moved or repurposed - making them the first reusable, load-bearing, modular wall. With faster build times and reduced labour and material costs, Specwall-LB has improved productivity by 40% on average, when it has been used in the housing and multi-storey markets.

Innovation type: Kit of parts, Manufacturing, Offsite
Organisation type: Private sector client, Research centre

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Project pioneers

Specwall Alliance is a UK company that produces a factory-manufactured walling system. The company was set up in 2019 by three construction and property specialists, who bring decades of experience with them across a number of global markets. They all have a shared aim to introduce cutting-edge manufacturing processes to the construction industry and their product, Specwall, has been key to driving greater efficiencies in the sector.

The problem

For decades, UK housebuilders have relied on aged onsite construction methods for internal walls, using block or timber partitions and joists with infill insulation and plasterboard facings. These methods work for no-one and impact productivity in three ways - labour & skills; performance; and sustainability. Firstly, they are labour intensive and slow, and require a relatively skilled workforce - so the absence of these skills can lead to inconsistent installation quality. They also perform relatively poorly in fire and acoustic tests and involve hazardous installation activities. Lastly they are extremely wasteful as they use multiple materials and often can be damaged in transit or installed incorrectly leading to up to 25% waste. In all but the very highest spec builds, the finished result cannot approach the accuracy and precision possible with integrated, factory-made wall panelling.

Vision

Offsite, factory-built load-bearing walls bring new levels of productivity and quality to multi-storey housebuilding and will help meet the target to build 300,000 new homes in the UK each year. Specwall-LB walls address many of the challenges that come with traditional methods. They are quicker to install, don't require increasingly-scarce specialist skills, have minimal waste and even have the ability to be repurposed in the future. Importantly, panels are only 100mm thick which reduces the overall size of the building, saving £1.4m on a 30-storey tower build.

Key Insight

Specwall Alliance was already manufacturing factory-built walls but only for dividing walls, not supporting ones. Specwall Alliance could see that if they could create factory-produced, load-bearing (LB) walls and floors then they could improve the speed and quality of multi-storey house-builds even more. And while they already knew about offsite manufacture, they lacked the knowledge on how to build load-bearing modularised walls, plus they needed investment to trial it. It was clear they couldn't do this alone and reached out to the Transforming Construction Challenge team.

First step

The Transforming Construction Challenge team helped Specwall Alliance take the first step to developing their innovation. Along with funding, Transforming Construction introduced them to the School of Architecture, Building and Civil Engineering team at Loughborough University who were busy working on numerous load-bearing scenarios, but had never applied them to modularised walls. Specwall Alliance too had never worked with an academic institution before but teamed up and recruited a PhD student and a research associate. Their vision? To create a system of quality, precision-engineered, load-bearing, interlocking 'A Grade' panels. So the collaboration of wall experts and academics set out to develop a finish-ready, offsite-manufactured, composite panelling system that could replace traditional block work, steel-framing systems and plasterboard, and say goodbye to inefficient and costly solutions that are assembled on-site.

Barrier

New processes and manufacturing approaches like factory-built walls can contribute to the whole life value of our infrastructure, yet they often require significant investment. And yet continuing to put up wall panels using standard processes is inefficient with margin for error. It consumes valuable time, requires skills that are in short supply, and is more likely to waste materials and cost more. The Transforming Construction Challenge fund allowed the Specwall LB team to test a better solution that could be scaled and reduce these inefficient processes.

Process innovation

Specwall Alliance already had expertise in building modular, off-site walls. The team at Loughborough had trialled various Building Information Modelling (BIM) strategies, but hadn't progressed enough to put their approaches into practice. Together they have been working on the best solution to make load-bearing structural walls in a safe, environmentally friendly, offsite way. The result is Specwall-LB. The prototype is entirely manufactured in a factory and built on a production line that is easy, learnable and reliable - and assures quality materials, dimensional accuracy and product integrity. And as its pre-finished, it means less work is required onsite. Three people, rather than nine, can install the walls - entirely independent of weather conditions and requiring no wet work, so its all ready to paint. Labour production is around 50% less hours per m2 when compared to plasterboard and, as there is a lower skill base required, there are lower labour costs so the overall saving is around 60 to 70%. The insulation inside the walls is also soundproof and fireproof - tested and certified to UK and European standards - and these built-in acoustic and fire ratings shave time off the construction process.

Digital Innovation

Traditionally, wall systems have been tested using estimation, trial and error. Loughborough University used BIM and digital twin modelling to simulate the best strategy to build the load-bearing wall. Analytical models showed - and predicted - the behaviour of the wall panels, allowing the team to consider different reinforcing strategies and therefore reduce error throughout the manufacturing and manual processes. Specwall Alliance had never done this type of prototype testing before or had access to this kind of data, but by bringing industry and academia together, it has provided greater assurance around the innovation.

Whole life innovation

Specwall LB offers more supply chain certainty in planning and managing projects. Time to install is 25% quicker compared to standard wall installation; less specialist skills are needed on-site; and there is less room for error in installation. Plus there are fewer delays as installation isn't weather dependent and the wall comes insulated and pre-finished. For any house-builder, this is a profitable and productive solution in terms of simplicity, safety and speed. Not only can the walls go up 25% faster but they can be taken down and moved around, reducing materials used and effectively making the wall reusable. Ultimately Specwall-LB can improve productivity in all sectors of the construction industry, and particularly in multi-storey developments. It will help meet UK housing targets more quickly and is a tried and tested innovation, with high-profile installations complete in Dubai and Australia.

Collaborators

Specwall Alliance's experts and Loughborough University's Principal Investigator on the project have learned huge amounts from one another, kick starting an industry-academic partnership that hasn't been embarked on before.

  • Loughborough University
  • Specwall Alliance

Lead support

The Transforming Construction Challenge grant, along with further investment from Specwall Alliance and Loughborough University, has funded three new team members at Specwall-LB - a Principal Investigator, a Research Associate and a PHD student. As well as funding, Transforming Construction has opened doors for Specwall Alliance and Loughborough to invest more in trialling their innovative ideas. The team are seeking out other opportunities for R&D funding, particularly with a focus on the circular economy. And a prospective customer, Westfield Homes, is already evaluating the prototype.

Long Term Vision

Specwall Alliance and Loughborough University have realised a vision to create load-bearing, factory-built walls that would transform the quality and productivity of construction, especially for multi-storey builds. Their innovation speeds up the process of house building but also puts whole life value at the heart of it - with a laser focus on quality. And its ambition extends to developing load-bearing structure skills and expertise across the industry, through training and quality auditing guidance. Specwall-LB delivers on accuracy, speed, quality and minimising waste, which all support more productive builds for the industry and will help meet targets for UK houses. They are also one step closer to reusable walls becoming the norm on sites, significantly reducing waste and use of non-recyclable materials.

Human Stories

Specwall-LB gives teams the confidence that pre-prepared, high quality, load-bearing walls will be delivered to site at the time they are required, and can be fitted easily. Site managers can plan ahead and minimise delay to other supply chains partners. This in turn instills trust in the quality and efficiency of the project. Homeowners can rely on better quality, multi-storey homes being built at a greater pace to meet demand for housing in the UK. And Specwall-LB is a great story of collaboration, with two unlikely partners - Specwall Alliance and Loughborough University - coming together to innovate around a very traditional area of housebuilding. The neurologically and culturally diverse academic team at Loughborough University has helped challenge the stereotypes of jobs in construction.

Powerful Processes

Specwall Alliance had expertise in factory-built modular walls that used precision engineering to ensure accuracy, efficiency and quality wall systems. Loughborough University were working on a number of load-bearing strategies but never on modularised walls. Together Specwall-LB represented a leap forward in how to use manufacturing and digital processes to solve one of the industry's oldest challenges - building load-bearing wall panels entirely off-site, more quickly, with greater accuracy and quality and in a way that improves productivity.

Fascinating Facts

As Specwall-LB comes ready made and pre-finished, it is 25% quicker to put up compared to standard wall installation, and takes 66% less labour to install it - three people rather than nine. Current analysis shows that 140 square metres of walling can be completed using Specwall-LB over an 8 hour shift. This is between 35-65% more productive than standard methods, and when applied across a programme can improve productivity by 40% on average. Where Specwall-LB is used fully, wastage is less than 2% compared to 15 – 20% for the traditional timber-block-brick-board approach. Labour production is around 50% less hours per m2 when compared to plasterboard and, as there is a lower skill base required, there are lower labour costs. The overall saving is around 60 to 70%. Panels are 100mm thick and so are smaller than normal. This reduces the size of the building, saving £1.4m on a 30 storey tower and achieving up to 5% more sellable floor space than when using traditional partitions. A large UK housing company is interested in creating a pipeline of 250 houses using Specwall-LB in year one, rising to 1,000 houses by year three. With Specwall’s contribution valued at £20,000 per house, that is £20m worth of production.

Benefits

Collaboration
This is the first time Specwall Alliance has partnered with an academic institution. The pair are learning huge amounts from one another and sharing knowledge and facilities. For example, Loughborough University has a purpose-built facility with separate chemical, concrete preparation, structural testing, and building energy laboratories. The concrete mixing laboratory houses an extensive range of equipment for the dosing mixing and casting of cementitious materials. The department also has a suite of powerful computers for simulation and modelling that have been used in this prototype.

Cost
The cost of materials is 20% less than plasterboard. And with fewer people needed on site to install the walls and with less materials used, Specwall-LB can reduce associated labour and material costs by up to 70%. Panels are 100mm thick and so are smaller than normal. This reduces the size of the building, saving £1.4m on a 30 storey tower and achieving up to 5% more sellable floor space than when using traditional partitions.

Diversity
The partnership between Specwall Alliance and the Loughborough University team benefits from neurologically and culturally diverse experiences and perspectives. The academic team is made up of a male Principal Investigator from Brazil, a female co-Investigator from Spain, a male Research Associate from China and a female PhD student from the UK.

Emissions
The accuracy of factory-built walls mean less materials are used and, as they are built entirely offsite, there is less wastage through damage in transit or poorly installed walls. On sites where Specwall-LB is used fully, wastage is less than 2% compared to 15 – 20% for the traditional timber-block-brick-board approach.

Investment
In addition to the Transforming Construction funding, Loughborough University has secured further funding through UKRI in collaboration with Specwall Alliance and Leeds University. This investment will focus on making Specwall-LB panels lighter and reusable, and so more sustainable. This second phase means the project can expand its ambition to further reduce carbon emissions, and implement more circular designs in the production line.

Productivity
Current analysis shows that 140 square metres of walling can be completed using Specwall-LB over an 8 hour shift. This is between 35-65% more productive than standard methods, and when applied across a programme can improve productivity by 40% on average. A leading UK construction company is interested in putting this to the test and create a pipeline of 250 houses using Specwall-LB in year one, rising to 1,000 houses by year three.

Regional Balance
Specwall Alliance and Loughborough University are based in the Midlands and the North and this investment has already generated jobs through the recruitment of a Principal Investigator, a Research Associate and a PhD student. The Loughborough University team are now going to be part of a £4m centre for post-doctoral development in infrastructure, cities and energy. C-DICE, a Research England programme, is the biggest investment in post-doctoral talent ever, and the Midlands-based team's involvement is thanks to its work on Specwall-LB.

Time
Specwall-LB is made entirely off-site, so arrives onsite ready-made and pre-finished. Its precision engineering and controlled factory environment ensure the walls are right first time, accurate and of high quality. As a result, labour productivity is 50% more per hour when compared to plasterboard, showing it can be put up in half the time. And as there is a lower skill base required, it requires 60-70% less labour costs.