Indeed, more developers, designers and planners are now starting to think ‘MMC first’. As the recently published report by the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) found, using offsite manufacturing at scale can routinely reduce construction time and cost by between 30% and 50%. According to the report, applied to £11.7bn of planned infrastructure spending between 2022/3 to 2024/5, this would equate to a benefit of £3.5bn to £5.9bn.
But the fact remains that modern methods of construction (MMC) still only accounts for a fairly small percentage of total housing delivery: traditional construction still accounts for more than 90% of housebuilding in the UK and even if the proportion using MMC increases to closer to 20% over the next few years as is predicted, this is still too low.
If we’re to have any chance of meeting government housebuilding and net zero targets, this percentage needs to rise – and fast. So what are the main barriers and how can we turbocharge a shift to modern methods of construction (MMC) on a wider scale?
For a start, there needs to be a more strategic investment in training the workforce required to deliver at scale. According to a new survey by Build Offsite, the body advocating the increased adoption of offsite and pre-manufactured solutions, the Midlands and North of England are performing less well for MMC adoption.
The survey also found only 31% of respondent felt there is enough support for skills, training and apprenticeships from the Government and in particular little training in the offsite sector, and no known support or training made available to businesses in the offsite sector.
While there is an emerging cluster of factories across the North West and Yorkshire and Humber, there are fewer examples in other areas of the North and Midlands. There needs to be much more of this type of commitment.
That’s why last month’s announcement by Sunderland City Council to build a new construction academy designed to give the local population the skills required to build low-carbon housing using modern methods of construction was welcome. Modular schemes can help to deliver modern, innovative and energy-efficient housing that improve neighbourhoods but also supports local jobs – true examples of levelling up in action.
The industry’s attitude to risk is another hurdle. Construction by its nature is pervaded with risk, and the sector has developed well-practised methods to transfer these risks. As Wolf Mangelsdorf, partner at Buro Happold, has pointed out, from client to design team, from design team to the main contractor and from the main contractor to the trades, the risk becomes concentrated at the point where players try to pass it on at design interfaces, where it is neither owned nor resolved.
This is closely related to another barrier. The reason we’re still building brick and block houses is because it’s what the public know and trust. A survey carried out for Home Group by You Gov found that 52% of individuals would not choose to live in a modular home and 41% believed that modular homes are less durable than conventionally built homes. Maybe a similar attitude has also lodged with many in the construction sector.
We also need more accountability to prevent against too many people rushing to achieve carbon net zero at the expense of quality.
To address this, the industry needs to address quality of onsite monitoring. There are moves on this front – Buildoffsite’s Property Assurance Scheme, for example, is a risk-based evaluation which demonstrates to funders, lenders, valuers and purchasers that homes built from non-traditional methods and materials will stand the test of time for at least 60 years.
I strongly believe that reinstating the often-overlooked position of the clerk of works would also build industry buy-in, provided they have the responsibility that goes with the position. Prior to the mid 90’s, clerks of works were a familiar presence.
But with the recession, cutbacks resulted in the outsourcing of services to management companies which would have a long-term impact as they would become increasingly less common. Even now, they are often only appointed on occasion for site visits or part time services. Reinstating the role would help provide invaluable advice and experience and would oversee the project to ensure that key aspects such as materials and workmanship are all top quality.
If these areas are addressed, there’s no reason why the speculation over MMC going mainstream cannot become a reality.
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