Published: 21/11/2002, Volume II2, No. 5832 Page 9

The head of construction services at NHS Estates has urged local services to make more use of prefabricated buildings to provide new hospitals quickly.

Peter Woolliscroft told a conference on off-site construction that the approach allows standardised building components to be made in factory-controlled conditions.

These are delivered and simply assembled on site. Entire standardised rooms can be provided, removing the need to design all parts of each new medical facility from scratch.

Proponents argue that standardisation reduces the chance of error and avoids delays due to adverse weather. Less time is needed for disruptive building work on working hospital sites and there is less noise and dust nuisance. But standardisation usually has a higher initial cost than traditional construction, and it is expensive to include late design changes.

Mr Woolliscroft warned that cost overruns due to such changes amounted to one quarter of the service's construction budget.

'Out of£3.2bn a year, that is a lot of money to waste.'

He urged NHS managers to accept that the cheapest initial tender price did not necessarily give best value and pointed out that both the National Audit Office and the EU had accepted this.

'It is now OK to accept the best value, not the lowest price. [The NHS] needs to get away from the traditional belief that the lowest price is best, ' he said.

Mr Woolliscroft rejected the idea that standardised components would mean poor quality and loss of local discretion.

'It is about having the right environment every time a hospital is built.We can say, 'This is the best layout for a room and every hospital should use it.' How it is deployed is where local initiative comes in, and external appearance will always be the province of the architect.'

Chorley and South Ribble primary care trust chair Dennis Benson told the conference, held earlier this month: 'The NHS has not always been a good construction client. We have not always given clear briefs and we have made design changes late in the process.

Jim Pettigrew, project manager of Inventures, the commercial arm of NHS Estates, urged NHS managers to look at volumetric modular buildings, where entire rooms are made in factories and the 'slices' linked up to on site.

'Volumetric is the sleeping giant. Quite huge projects can be completed in a really short time, ' he said.