With the Government looking for a means to deliver its 300,000 new homes a year target by the mid 2020’s, modern methods of construction (MMC) is often lauded as offering a relatively quick and easy solution. But is it viable?
The short answer is, not yet, but it’s getting there.
What is MMC?
To many, MMC is still a new concept, so to overcome the confusion around new and innovative techniques and increase understanding of what MMC involves, the Government asked the MHCLG Joint Industry Working Group on MMC, to develop a definitional framework (PDF) into which all modern construction techniques can be categorised.
This framework is designed to help insurers, mortgage lenders and other industry stakeholders to engage with MMC developments and provide them with the relevant financial products.
Potential benefits of using MMC to build homes
Advocates of using MMC cite several benefits to using these methods in comparison with traditional construction techniques. The most common are:
Quicker and more predictable delivery:
A possible 20 - 60% reduction in the construction programme time. Mostly from the benefits of working indoors, avoiding weather disruption.
Better quality of delivery:
With almost zero defects on completion and reduced incidents of defects occurring in use.
Reduction in costs:
A possible 20 - 40% reduction in construction costs and the potential for improved whole life costs.
More efficient use of materials:
Half the total waste produced in the UK comes from construction. Factories can be optimised to minimise material waste to below 1% of the total, in comparison with traditional construction which typically vary between 18% and 22%.
Fewer people on site:
Potential for a reduction of 70%+ in onsite labour, which should alleviate fears regarding post-Brexit labour shortage fears.
Improved health and safety for workers:
A larger proportion of the workforce is factory based, working at safe heights in controlled environments.
More diverse workforce:
Currently women make up 12% of the construction workforce. An increasing proportion of factory based work and standardised hours could encourage different people into the workforce.
Creation of local employment:
Factories provide stable employment and can be situated in areas with higher levels of unemployment to generate employment opportunities.
Overall reduction in energy consumption:
MMC can use 20 - 30% less energy to heat in comparison with traditionally built new homes.
Fewer deliveries to the site:
Fewer lorries travelling backwards and forwards to the site to deliver materials and components means less noise, disruption and pollution in the surrounding area.
Lighter weight of construction and shallow foundations:
Modular builds can be around 30% lighter than conventional masonry construction, and can withstand shallower foundations which means they can be erected in areas where underground tunnels might prevent the construction of traditional buildings.
More choice for consumers:
Greater possibility for customisation with some techniques enabling customers to choose finishes from a specification menu, including facing material, floor coverings, internal configurations and extra bedrooms.
Dynamic database tracking:
Using Building Information Modelling (BIM) software, a database tracks the unit from its original design through to occupation. This information can be shared with stakeholders and therefore has the potential to improve stakeholder confidence in the system.
So what’s stopping it?
At present, the MMC industry lacks quantified evidence to compare with traditional building methods. Indeed, a recent report: ‘Methodology for quantifying the benefits of offsite construction’ by CIRIA and the Laing O’Rourke Centre for Construction Engineering and Technology at the University of Cambridge, launched on 16 March, concludes: “The insufficient availability and consistency of data on projects…” “...highlighted the challenges in benchmarking projects over their full life cycle. This applies to projects across the spectrum, from traditionally constructed projects to those with high levels of offsite construction.”
Innovation and experimentation
And, as is often the case in the early industrial innovation cycle, there’s a high level of experimentation with many different manufacturers and contractors, and a variety of models being experimented with, which prevents homebuilders from taking advantage of economies of scale to drive down costs, or the speed advantages of being able to recycle designs. This inevitably leads to increased costs and caution.
Some types of modular housing will be appropriate for certain sites but not others, for example, if there are limitations on site access it might not be possible to install externally produced, modular homes. Therefore, it is not desirable to concentrate too narrowly on certain types of modular housing, but to develop a small number of solutions and techniques that offer flexibility depending on the site’s typology to enable the industry to again, take advantage of economies of scale.
Warranties, mortgages and insurance
Up until very recently, the lack of warranties available for MMC have made mortgage applications and insurance difficult to obtain.
However, just this month the NHBC has launched NHBC Accepts, an all-inclusive, end-to-end service that will help to build confidence in innovative construction and enable MMC systems to be fast-tracked for NHBC warranty.
There’s little doubt however, that once experimentation leads to standardisation and therefore lower costs and risk, that the UK will quickly catch up to countries such as Japan, Germany and Sweden where modular is delivering housebuilders with the much sought after benefits of improved speed of delivery, quantity and quality of new homes.
Leap of faith
Many housebuilders have taken a leap of faith however, with the likes of Barratt Homes now building 10% of their new homes in factories with a target to up this to 20% by the end of 2020. And Countryside Homes, Crest Nicholson and Persimmon all have off-site housing factories too.
And the planning pipeline is showing-willing too, with a 175% increase in residential planning submissions with modular construction specified as a material - although from a low base - in the last 12 months.
Can MMC offer a viable solution to our housing needs?
If MMC can prove its worth vs. traditional construction, and if it can speed up the experimentation and innovation stages to produce a small number of standardised MMC solutions, then, with the help of the new NHBC Accepts warranty, it seems inevitable that mass-adoption is likely to take off. It’s just a matter of time.