Construction in healthcare is a precision business. Its role is to support the industry’s primary function – to deliver the best available healthcare services to patients. New developments and continual refurbishment are all important in handling the demands on patient care, but can often present a number challenges, not least of which include disruption, financial pressures, health issues caused by dust and congestion.

As a result, NHS trusts must consider alternative construction methods as part of a more flexible masterplanning strategy, which minimise the risks while also delivering better quality facilities for service delivery. One such example is modular wards, which are constructed using off-site manufacture (OSM). 

Building wards in a modular way using OSM offers a number of benefits to NHS trusts, the most obvious of which are speed of construction and programme certainty. Construction is unaffected by weather and, while the modules are being built, demolition and enabling works can be carried out on-site. 

The foundations for the new building, while requiring absolute precision, are simpler and quicker to construct too. 

As a result, build time can be reduced by up to 50 per cent, giving hospitals access to their improved facilities sooner, which in turn allows more time for staff training and equipment testing.

And precision is where OSM comes into its own. Modules are carefully jigged, all holes pre-punched, and components bolted together in the factory.

When assembly does begin, it’s reasonably straightforward not to mention fast, and constrained sites with minimal storage no longer present a problem. The hospital staff and patients suffer less too.

OSM results in less activity on-site, meaning reduced health and safety risks, reduced dust (so critical where patients may have respiratory problems), fewer car parking spaces lost, and less construction traffic on the hospital site.

Those reduced vehicle movements help maintain a strict sustainability policy. A 2007 report published by the Waste & Resources Action Programme found that a 90 per cent waste reduction can be achieved with OSM; it’s high-precision manufacture, so only the exact quantity of materials needed are used.

Modular units offer a high level of design flexibility, and greater freedom of location – rooftops and courtyards suddenly become feasible working environments. They also allow for future expansion without decanting patients and staff. 

The process can be phased, which makes moving and working around patients easier, reducing stress to nurses and patients, and alleviating pressure on resources. The units can also be specified to arrive completely fitted out with everything from electrics to embedded drips.

The challenge to OSM is that it is perceived to not be the cheapest option, but we should always bear in mind the added value and cost saving in time. It hasn’t yet achieved the highest level of aesthetic quality, which is closely related to emotional well-being, although as take up increases, the options are becoming wider. 

In logistics terms too, while reduced vehicle movements are positive, the delivery and installation of modules must meet constraints such as motorway restrictions and craning of units into place. Careful scheduling and an experienced team usually manage out this problem.

While OSM is not the best fit for every NHS development need, its flexibility makes it an excellent long and short-term solution for many.