Transforming house construction with DfMA

Construction practice has hardly evolved in 40 years, and nor has productivity. Houses as a product have been criticised as cost-inefficient and failing to meet the market demand. Innovation market failures have been caused by a lack of continuity of business cycles and the presence of discipline silos, as well as the lack of evidence-based benchmarks for modern construction methods and fragmented available knowledge. A consortium including Birmingham City University (BCU) as an academic partner was formed to address these issues. 

DFMA large

The consortium comprising cross-disciplinary experts is developing a platform-based approach to design, manufacture and assemble environmentally-friendly and scalable affordable houses that will meet the demand of high volumes of quality social housing.

Project aims

  • Develop lightweight steel-framed DfMA houses so that they are scalable, cost-efficient and environmentally-friendly;
  • Embed energy efficiency as central to the design to ensure the delivery of the most energy 'active' and efficient homes possible;
  • Evaluate the DfMA house envelope to optimise automation capacity;
  • Contrast various assembly options based on testbed house projects to develop actual productivity data as benchmarks for improvement;
  • Develop a proof-of-concept knowledge-based engineering (KBE) tool from 1. to 4. to estimate the life-cycle cost and CO2 emissions for appraising DfMA houses.

The benefits of DfMA houses

DfMA houses target to reduce 33% life-cycle costs including 10% build cost, 50% design and construction time, 30% household energy consumption and 50% carbon intensity and to increase 20% construction productivity. The anticipated economic benefits for the project include:

  1. reducing tenant householders' energy bills;
  2. creating new business opportunity for suppliers;
  3. reducing regional construction costs and speeding up delivery to meet the completions targeted;
  4. allowing other registered providers to replicate the business model through partnerships with the Group, which will create a multiplier effect;
  5. a reduced labour requirement per home will improve the industry resilience to labour shortage - an existing problem likely to worsen over time.

Other social impacts include: 1) improving quality of life by creating more disposable income and more comfortable living environment; 2) quicker access to social or affordable housing; 3) creating new roles and skills for the future; 4) creating a safer work environment for production than the traditional production onsite.


Birmingham City University

Birmingham City University (BCU) has a strong track-record of working with industry partners in collaborative projects funded by organisations such as the EPSRC, IUK, EC commissioned funding such as ERDF, etc. With the breadth and depth of expertise in computing, engineering and the built environment, BCU brings together an international team of experts in ontology development, knowledge-based engineering, off-site manufacturing, cost modelling, carbon measurement and building information modelling. BCU’s research team is looking to apply the knowledge-based engineering approach to transform housing delivery in the regions. 

Researchers in the project 

The project requires cross-discipline expertise to develop the know-how required for DfMA houses. The consortium is composed of whg (as the testbed project provider, technology integrator, and project manager), Northmill Associates (as the product designer), QM system (as the production designer and production engineer), Hadley Group (as the principal manufacturer), Energy Systems Catapults (as the energy modeller) and Birmingham City University (as the off-site construction advisor and knowledge based engineering (KBE) tool programme designer).

Walsall Housing Group (whg)

Walsall Housing Group is a Midlands registered provider (RP) with 21,000 homes and a development programme of 5-600 per year, seeking to move into offsite delivery. The Group has a strong rating with the regulator (G1/V1) and with Moody’s (A3) and a commitment to the communities in which it works. It had a turnover of £105M and spent £100k for consultancy in the R&D in 17-18.  whg is looking to use the project to develop the know-how of DfMA further through collaborations with partners from different sectors and disciplines, establish enough evidence of the benefits to support investment in further R&D and production facilities by the Group, and develop new products and services in transforming how social and affordable houses are delivered and maintained. 

Hadley Group

Hadley Group is a world leader in advanced cold rolled steel technology that delivers innovative solutions with applications across sectors as diverse as construction, automotive, industrial and agriculture. The Hadley Group team are supported by a team of 70 engineers dedicated to research, development and application innovative solutions with a total production team of 700 people across the UK, Europe, Middle and Far East and welcomes the challenge to positively impact the communities we serve with new levels of innovation, quality and building performance from our advanced method of construction. The group is the winner of Queens Award for Enterprise: Innovation in 2014. 

Northmill Associates

Northmill Associates is a medium-sized architectural practice offering robust, client focused advice and building solutions. Northmill is able to deliver significant and often unique projects of student residence, office, showroom, renovation and regeneration across the UK aiming to promote value in every aspect of our work. The Northmill are supported by 16 members of staff with a wealth of experience in Architecture, Design, and Technical Delivery. 

QM Systems

QM Systems are experts in Design for Manufacture and leaders in the creation of innovative, leading edge assembly systems for automated assembly processes across a wide range of industries including Automotive, Rail, Aerospace, Pharmaceutical, Food and Beverage, Oil & Gas, Building services, MOD and Retail. Its current and regular clients include Bentley Motors, Jaguar Land Rover, Lear Corporation, Hadley Group, Kingspan, Siemens, JVM Castings, Kohler Mira, Knorr-Bremse, and Cox Powertrain. QM Systems has evolved with the industry demands to become and innovative solution provider specialising in Automated production systems, Robotics, Industrial control systems, Automated test systems, Conveying, Automated Handling systems and automated production management.

Energy Systems Catapult

Energy Systems Catapult (ESC) was set up by the UK Government, as part of a world-leading network of innovation centres, with a mission to unleash innovation and open new markets that capture the clean growth opportunity recognised in the Industrial Strategy. It takes a whole energy systems view – from power, heat and transport to industry, infrastructure and consumers – bridging the gap between business, academia, and government to identify innovation opportunities and help overcome systemic barriers, to accelerate the decarbonisation of the energy system at least cost. It works at local, regional, national and international levels, while acting as an ‘impartial broker’, helping to open-up new markets and promote UK skills and capabilities.

The DfMA house journey

The BCU team began discussions in Feb 2018 with whg and other disciplinary experts of offsite construction about the role of research in transforming house delivery processes. Building on the previous studies on off-site manufacturing, Building Information Modelling (BIM) and ontology development carried out by the BCU team members, a proposal was prepared for a 2-year industrial research project (between Mar 19 to Feb 21) under ISCF - Transforming Construction funding competition. The £972,000 proposed project was successfully awarded by Innovate UK with a grant value of £730,000.

It is an ongoing project with the highlights of outputs below:

What are the problems that the project is addressing?
  • Traditionally, building design is considered to be highly dependent on individual project’s requirements. The construction, as a result, is very craft-based and thus creates challenges in improving productivity and quality control e.g. through standardisation of processes.
  • Due to disciplinary silos, there is a lack of knowledge within construction of how various production methods can be implemented in a factory environment.
  • The life-cycle performance of houses has significant implications to the society. For instance, electricity bills are a main part of household expenditure for social tenants and the cumulative CO2 emissions in relation to the life cycle of houses is significant. There is a broken link between beneficiaries of energy efficiency and house design and production in the value chain.
  • Integrating knowledge of building design, manufacturing and building performance is crucial for innovation and continuous improvement but is not easily accessible.
How does the project address the problems?
  • Building Design: To ensure the house design makes full use of the benefits of standardisation and automation in offsite manufacturing, this project developed a DfMA house design that embraces 3 design principles: 1) Design for Manufacture, 2) Design for Assembly and 3) Design for Life Cycle Performance.
  • Production method: Experience of the production engineer and manufacturer is drawn to map the processes and activities required in automating DfMA house production.
  • Life cycle performance: Energy performance of the DfMA house is accessed with the state-of-art high fidelity model developed by Energy System Catapult and a life cycle cost model for DfMA house is developed.
  • Integrating knowledge: The BCU team develops a proof-of-concept Knowledge Based Engineering tool for life-cycle costing and carbon emission estimation that demonstrates the integration of knowledge relating to design, manufacturing and life cycle performance of the DfMA house.
What is the BCU vision?

The aim of this research project is to create a knowledge-based engineering system that allows forecasting and easy planning of DfMA houses. By developing an interface that collates data from a number of sources, including building models, production data, assembly data, energy performance and CO2 emissions, it will enable designers and manufacturers to identify affordable and fit-for-purpose DfMA house solution before production begins. In our vision, will be able to make a number of suitability and cost estimates of possible designs, ensuring houses are affordable and fit for purpose before production begins. the data solution using KBE can be designed towill be able to assist designers and manufacturers to optimise DfMA house design in the long run and facilitate continuous product improvement.

Publications from the BCU team
  • AYINLA, K., CHEUNG, F. 2020 Development of a generic workflow process model for Offsite Manufacturing (OSM) (under preparation)
  • VAKAJ, E., CHEUNG, F., TAWIL, A., PAUWELS, P. PATLAKAS P. 2020. OHO: an Offsite Housing Ontology (under preparation)
  • AYINLA, K., CHEUNG, F. 2020 Process waste analysis for off-site wall panel production methods for house construction (under review)
  • KALEMI, E. V., CHEUNG F.. TAWIL A., PATLAKAS, P. & ALYINLA K. 2020. ifcOWL-DfMA a new ontology for the offsite construction domain. LDAC2020 – Proceedings for Linked Data in Architecture and Construction, Trinity College, Dublin
  • AYINLA, K., CHEUNG, F. & TAWIL, A. 2019. Towards an ontology-based approach to measuring productivity for offsite manufacturing method. ARCOM 2019 Productivity, Performance and Quality Conundrum, 2nd - 4th September, Leeds Beckett University, Leeds, UK
  • AYINLA, K., CHEUNG, F. & TAWIL, A. 2019. Demystifying the concept of offsite manufacturing method: Towards a robust definition and classification system. Construction Innovation, 20 (2), 223-246
  • ABANDA, F. H., TAH, J. H. M., & CHEUNG, F. 2017. BIM in off-site manufacturing for buildings. Journal of Building Engineering, 14, 89-102
  • PATLAKAS P., A. LIVINGSTONE, HAIRSTANS R. & NEIGHBOUR G. 2018. Automatic code compliance with multi-dimensional data fitting in a BIM context. Advanced Engineering Informatics, 38, 216-231
  • OTI, A., KURUL, E., CHEUNG, F. & TAH, J. 2016. A framework for the utilization of Building Management System data in building information models for building design and operation. Automation in Construction, 72 (2), 195-210