Housing associations are embracing new building methods – but there are challenges to overcome

Increasing numbers of new homes are being built using an offsite technique known as Modern Methods of Construction, but barriers still hold back its potential. The Homes, Communities and Local Government Select Committee has set up an enquiry to look into overcoming the challenges.

Will Jeffwitz, National Housing Federation

Will Jeffwitz, National Housing Federation

10 January 2019

Imagine if you paid for a new car, only to find a series of workers turn up to assemble it from sheet metal and bits of plastic, with a paper plan, on your driveway. That, crudely, is how traditional houses are built. But it doesn’t have to be.

Currently about 40% of the value of the construction of a home is undertaken away from the site. This includes things like manufacturing the bricks, the windows, or the roof structures. But this is low by international standards and relative to other forms of construction. With the range of technologies now available this figure could be 70% or more. This could involve building entire walls (‘panelised’ systems), components like bathroom pods or flooring cassettes, or rooms or even homes (‘volumetric’ construction).

This approach – shifting the activity of homebuilding away from the site and into factories, and digitising it in the process – is what is meant by phrases like Modern Methods of Construction (MMC), offsite manufacturing for construction, or smart construction. It’s not new – in 1664 Massachusetts settlers built homes using prefabricated materials brought from England. And outside England it’s more common than you’d think – 80% of Sweden’s housing is panelised. It’s seen as increasingly essential if we’re to meet England’s housing need.

That’s because the mooted benefits include faster build times, improved quality, reduced need for onsite labour, improved health and safety, reduced site waste, reduced cost, and a reduced impact on surrounding area.

Many housing associations have taken big strides in embracing MMC. Accord Group and Swan Housing Association have both set up factories to manufacture directly. Home Group’s Gateshead Innovation Village has set out to prove what is possible. And housing associations all over the country have led developments in partnership with offsite manufacturers.

But real and perceived barriers have prevented greater takeup to date. Many of these stem from the relative immaturity of the offsite manufacturing industry, which still largely comprises small firms with limited track record of delivery.

The Federation is involved in several pieces of work looking to overcome these, including the Construction Leadership Councils’ Innovation in Building programme, as well as supporting members to collaborate around the country. We’d like to hear more about what’s getting in the way in our supply conversation with members over the next few months.

Last year a team spent four months grappling with these questions as part of the Federation’s Creating our Future programme, and the outcome – Building Better – is set to launch this year, bringing housing associations together to aggregate demand and standardise designs.

There is considerable political interest too. Just before Christmas the Housing, Communities and Local Government committee announced an inquiry into MMC. They are keen to hear about the challenges facing offsite construction and ways in which the Government and others can help overcome them.

The Federation will be submitting a response, and we’d welcome any feedback from members to inform this. Please get in touch with me by Friday 18 January with your thoughts.

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