The Government has made it absolutely clear that construction is going to be a vital driver for our economic recovery following the pandemic that has turned the world upside down. Providing the buildings and the infrastructure that we need, along with the many jobs that can be salvaged or created, will help to shape this challenging new world we find ourselves in. So how can insulated panel systems help us get building safely and swiftly?

Made in the UK

Let’s start with supply – a key concern for many architects currently. EPIC members manufacture their products right here in the UK, reducing the risks associated with relying on imported materials both post-COVID and post Brexit. With manufacturing facilities up and down the UK that meet rigorous environmental, quality and health and safety standards, specifiers can be assured of a responsible and reliable supply chain.

Digital design

Now consider the products. Steel faced, PIR core insulated panel systems comprise liner, insulation and facing in robust single units that lend themselves readily to digital modelling. This ensures that specifiers can access a wealth of performance information and test standards, with manufacturer specific BIM objects, as well as standard details to support their work. It also facilitates traceability, supporting the golden thread of information that has become so important following Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendations in her report Building a Safer Future.

Cutting carbon

The high performance PIR core means that the panels can be thin and light, achieving low U-values, whilst the factory engineered joints enable high levels of airtightness. Thin and light also means that more panels can be shipped to site per load, reducing the amount of traffic to site, and the carbon footprint of the project. Because the panels are manufactured off site and delivered ready to install there is minimal waste and minimal fabrication or adjustments needed on site.

Size, speed and safety matter

The autohesively bonded steel units can achieve significant spanning capabilities which, together with their light weight, minimises the requirement for secondary steelwork. The panels are 1 or 2 metres wide, with lengths of up to 20 metres. Their size facilitates social distancing, especially when using mechanical handling, and the single fix installation process both minimises the time needed to erect a building, and the number of people needed on site. For example, we have a case study where a 3,000 m2 roof was installed in a single day by just 6 people using insulated panels, mechanical handling systems and well planned logistics. It would typically take up to 4 weeks and 8 people to install an equivalent roof using a built-up system.

Issues to be aware of

Whilst the panels themselves have the potential to help with the issues on site around social distancing, there are still aspects that contractors need to be aware of, and clear guidelines to follow. The Construction Leadership Council’s (CLC) ‘Site Safety Operating Procedures’, currently in its fifth iteration, and the ‘Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19) in construction and other outdoor work’ guidance published by the UK Government provide good practice measures to minimise the risk of spreading or contracting COVID-19 on site. They reiterate the responsibility that everybody has to observe these measures.

Apart from the provision of sufficient hygiene facilities and protective equipment where relevant, key areas to consider include proper risk assessments, planning, logistics and the supply of suitable equipment for each stage of the construction, from delivery on site to installation and inspection.

For example, if possible, delivery drivers should remain in their trucks whilst goods are unloaded. Where a range of different panel sizes has been specified, any mechanical handling equipment must be capable of dealing with that, and there must be sufficient space on site to manoeuvre the equipment safely. Manufacturers should be able to advise on the most suitable equipment for the safe and appropriate movement of their products. Touchpoints on equipment must be regularly and thoroughly cleaned, especially if used by different operatives.

In general, longer length insulated panels installed on roofs and horizontally on walls can virtually eliminate manual handling and enable safe social distancing. However, vertical wall applications and detailing such as the installation of closure trims may require additional measures to maintain a safe working environment, such as use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), side by side working rather than face to face, and offsite preparation of detailing where possible.

Build, build, build

At a time when the skills shortage is more severe than ever, sites are operating with fewer personnel and greater restrictions, and many projects have stalled, it is crucial to look at materials and methods of construction that can support a safe and productive return to work within the limitations that now exist.

From the digital information that facilitates a building design, to how readily it can be constructed to a high standard, and how long and efficiently it will perform in use, specifying insulated panel systems can help the UK to get building again, supplying the quality infrastructure the economy needs to recover and thrive.