In an era of materials and skills shortages, a global shift towards sustainability and new notions around the ideal workplace, MMC stands out as a construction method that can adapt to new demands. But how can the UK fully embrace MMC homes? This was the question discussed at a recent roundtable event chaired by Ian Atkinson of law firm Womble Bond Dickinson
I spoke with industry experts to discuss the merits of MMC and how it can break into the UK construction market, including Joseph Worland, associate director at Lloyds Banking Group; Stephen Wightman, regional director and UK MMC lead at Faithful + Gould; Jessie Wilde, deputy project director at Bristol Housing Festival; Edward Jezeph, senior investments manager at Homes England; and Pablo Martinez Rodriguez, senior lecturer at the Department of Mechanical & Construction Engineering at Northumbria University.
Is standardisation the answer to supporting the growth of MMC homes in the UK?
According to Northumbria University’s Pablo Martinez Rodriguez, standardisation of MMC can be a double-edged sword: “Standardisation can help the industry to grow, but it can also suppress innovation.”
He stressed what matters is who sets the standards. Bristol Housing Festival’s Jessie Wilde agreed, saying that standardisation needs to be developed in partnership with supply chains.
For Stephen Wightman of Faithful + Gould, we need to be clear about what we are looking for MMC to provide in order to then determine whether or not it has succeeded: “Standardising components is not necessarily the answer. We need to standardise performance criteria which delivers outcomes for users. For example, acoustic attenuation between room spaces is far better in MMC than in traditional types of construction. If performance standards made this sort of acoustic attenuation part of performance criteria, traditional builders would have to add in content to increase the performance of buildings to close the gap with what has already been provided by MMC.”
Wightman explained that MMC often outperforms traditional construction methods for both speed of delivery and quality of building fabric. He continued: “Set standards around performance, then the industry starts to innovate, much like the car industry did when they were given emissions targets.”
Edward Jezeph from Homes England added: “We do need confidence in the building technologies we’re using, but we can do that by looking to warranties and insurance markets already out there.”
With low uptake of MMC homes in the UK compared to countries like Sweden and Japan, is the industry’s growth hindered by a reluctance from insurers and lenders to provide finance?
Lloyds Banking’s Joseph Worland explained there are barriers for homeowners looking to secure mortgages on MMC homes due to limitations on existing warranties and insurance policies – but commercial lending for MMC projects is a different story.
Large housebuilders can easily access investment for MMC based on reputable management teams, access to capital and credit records. However, start-up factories without the historic performance of sustained delivery against a pipeline or established credit ratings can face challenges when securing finance.
Worland continued: “The best MMC operators have accessed institutional investment to bypass the lenders and are now moving to a position where they’re more mature.”
However, he added, there is “a lack of understanding around MMC, people think it’s a product and it’s not, it’s a process. Insurers are starting to understand the products aren’t unique. Redundancy of supply chain has been a concern, but performance standards would make it easier to substitute manufacturers.”
Wilde agreed that MMC is fundamentally misunderstood, saying: “Adopting MMC would completely change the way that local authorities or regional housing associations build new homes. Unfortunately, change isn’t something that people embrace quickly.”
Wightman added that “speed of delivery is not important to traditional housebuilders – in fact, there is an economic incentive to not flood the market. Whereas, if an MMC factory is empty, it’s a nightmare. They rely on productivity and continually building.”
What role can MMC play in delivering sustainable change as well as improvements to equality, diversity and inclusion in the construction industry?
Current statistics show only 13% of the construction workforce is female, compared with 20% in energy, mining and transport.
For Stephen Wightman, MMC offers significant opportunities to promote equality, diversity and inclusion.
He explained that site-based roles mean unpredictable workplaces, compared with the factory-based setting an MMC production process provides – along with more predictable working patterns, and stressed that research has found factories 10 times safer than on-site construction.
He also highlighted that research has shown huge potential carbon-emission savings from MMC, with 70% fewer transport movements overall for modular homes built offsite. To illustrate that MMC was more sustainable than traditional building methods, Pablo Martinez Rodriguez shared that an MMC house that was built in China and transported to New Zealand had a lower environmental footprint than a home constructed in New Zealand in the traditional manner.
Looking at MMC through the lens of ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance), Wilde explained: “From a local government perspective, looking at MMC in the light of the Social Value Act, it’s not about best cost but best value.
“For sceptics who think that modular construction puts comfort and aesthetics secondary to cost, their argument falls down quickly as it’s currently more expensive and requires a lot of effort.”
Jezeph explained that it’s easy for MMC homes to outperform traditional buildings on the sustainability front, saying: “We are moving towards net zero in the UK, but we are delivering low quality homes which are not fit for purpose.”
Everyone agreed that the baseline for the energy performance of homes currently being built in the UK was low. For Edward, it’s not surprising that an industry which hasn’t changed the way it works in several hundred years is also finding it difficult to attract young talent.
Wightman concluded that additional benefits of MMC, such as predictability and lack of disruption, would contribute to both the environmental and social factors in the construction industry. He also flagged that MMC homes offer the option of mass customisation – giving buyers and users the chance to tailor houses to suit their needs.
Find out more information on the merits of MMC at Womble Bond Dickinson’s (WBD) re:build Britain campaign.
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