Overcoming blockers/issues to delivering MMC in the social housing sector

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Mary Bennell, director of SWPA, explores the issues of delivering modern methods of construction (MMC) in the social housing sector and tells us how we can overcome these blockers

There has been great progress in the delivery of homes using MMC, in the South West, over the past two years and many organisations now have clear plans to deliver a significant number of homes using MMC in their future programmes.

At the recent Constructing Excellence South West Construction Summit, I presented a heat map showing issues that have been resolved, those that are being worked on, and those that we need to do more work on. Attendees were asked to suggest whether there were any other issues that needed to be picked up, from this two more were added.

There are too many issues to discuss individually, so many that it would become a book and not a blog!  Some important ones to highlight are:

  • Two issues that are certainly in the ‘resolved’ section are client advocacy, and appetite for MMC. For example, Magna Housing, a long-time advocate with its MMC first approach, has been a trailblazer for many years promoting the concept of aggregating demand to form significant pipelines of orders. They have been joined by Wiltshire Council in this mission.

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Cornwall Council have also embraced MMC delivering two large housing schemes using panelised systems, and now delivering move on accommodation for the homeless using modular solutions.

Bristol Housing Festival’s primary purpose is to promote MMC solutions to meet Bristol’s urgent housing need, becoming a disrupter and enabler for the council and surrounding authorities to delivering high quality affordable offsite solutions.

There are others all working with suppliers to deliver offsite, and what is most noticeable is that all are willing to share their knowledge and expertise with each other, embracing the collaboration impetus that is needed to ramp up delivery across the piece.

  • An issue that is well on its way to being resolved is design standardisation, either by using the designs and products produced by a manufacturer off the shelf, or clients coming together to produce standardised designs that can have different external treatments according to the planning requirements – Ilke homes and CCG in Scotland have a standard range of house types as do many others.

There is an acceptance amongst clients that having their own individual designs for an individual project worked up for them is not the best use of time and resources and would be just a reinvention of the wheel rather than building on previous activities and expertise.

An issue in the to be resolved section of the heatmap is that of substructure and groundworks. A fast-developing issue is not having a designed solution for the supporting structures for MMC, but rather relying on the old traditional way of strip foundations and ground slabs. This increases the massing and costs of the concrete in its original form, with consequences for cost and increased embodied carbon. Efforts to look at innovative, renewable solutions such as screw piles and pad foundations must be accelerated, and the experience and research from the non-domestic sector used.

Three initiatives in the South West to deliver MMC offsite homes are covering off several the issues shown in the heatmap.

Building better

  • Aggregated demand /pipeline
  • Securisations and quality
  • Development of common performance measures
  • Energy quality standards

Building Better, an initiative launched by the National Housing Federation in 2018, comprises of a core group of 29 housing associations across England with a significant number in the South West. They have been to the market and developed a framework with 3 suppliers – one for housing and apartments, one solely for housing, and one for apartments using a range of standardised design and components with some design flexibility. This solution offers the client the benefits of a quick route to delivery by means of a direct call off.

The Cluster – As Easy as 1,2,3

  • Aggregated demand /pipeline
  • Experienced clients
  • Proof of concept
  • Build to stock potential
  • Securisations and quality via NHBC Accepts
  • Standardised designs and specifications developed with resident consultation
  • Robust suppliers form established framework

This initiative spearheaded by Magna Housing and Wiltshire Council is to develop 996 homes across Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire calling off from the South West Procurement Alliance’s Offsite Construction of New Homes (NH2) framework.

A portfolio of house types and apartments has been developed in consultation with residents, they can be configured into many different visual effects and arrangements to suit all requirements. One of the most innovative aspects of this programme is that there is the facility for the modules to be built to stock, separating the manufacturing process from the planning timelines. For example, if the planning permission gets delayed on a specific site the modules can be stored without their external finishes at the manufacturing plant and can be used for other projects if another requirement becomes available. This can extend to different clients using the stock as their sites become available.

The mini competition for this project is currently underway and other clients will have the opportunity to join in with the cluster by direct award to the successful manufacturer.

Low carbon offsite housing construction DPS

  • Outcome led procurement – clients input key requirements
  • Optioneering against a list of potential requirements
  • Access to a flexible supplier base
  • Ability to take advantage of new initiatives
  • Providing knowledge of a wider supplier base

The DPS combines a dynamic purchasing system with an optioneering tool, from CMM, to provide clients with a way of navigating and accessing a large range of potential suppliers and systems with the assurance that quality and the ability to meet the client requirements has been robustly tested and ascertained.

One of the key benefits here is that clients will have access to a wider supply base than under a traditional framework and can nominate a specific supplier themselves for accreditation.

Suppliers are assessed and accredited using the standard public procurement shortlisting process and then input detailed quality and performance data under several categories, including a focus on energy performance into the CMM toolkit.

Clients can then set out their project outcomes and enter those into the tool, and via a matching process, a list of suppliers capable of meeting the requirement is produced.

A supplier selection can then be carried out by means of a mini tender to ensure the system and supplier who best matches the client requirements wins the work.

There are other pockets of excellence across the South West not acknowledged here but looking at the heat map what is really positive is the number of issues for which solutions are being developed individually and in collaboration with others.

It will be interesting to review the heat map in the coming years to look at where individual items have moved.

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