Tom Shaw, director at Ramboll, looks at the growing recognition of offsite construction’s potential in tackling the housing crisis and what needs to happen next
Unless you have been living under a rock, you will be aware that we are in the middle of a chronic housing shortage – one of the most pressing issues in the UK today. As we continue to struggle to build the homes we need, those in power are starting to recognise the potential of offsite construction methods. In his first speech, the (since replaced) housing minister Alok Sharma MP highlighted that the “benefits are clear” for modern methods of construction (MMC).
August saw the London Assembly publish Design, Sealed, Delivered, a paper targeted at the mayor of London with recommendations to galvanise the offsite sector.
The Housing White Paper was published in February 2017, providing support for MMC and prior to that, the Farmer Review, Modernise or Die, provided a stark warning of what could happen to the industry if we do not embrace offsite due to the dwindling labour market. So are the stars finally aligning for offsite construction?
Offsite construction can provide significant benefits to projects: shorter construction programmes, reduced costs, higher and more consistent quality of finishes, reduced headcounts onsite with improved health and safety, as well as the benefits of reduced noise for neighbours. Offsite can also be key to unlocking highly constrained sites.
Negative preconceptions of poor quality prefabrication in the 1950s and 1960s have had a damaging impact on offsite construction. Concerns are often raised over the quality, durability and lifespan of buildings, dampness, and fire. As a result, there is nervousness over insurance, mortgages and whether we will be able to sell prefabricated homes.
Those pricing the schemes without an understanding of offsite construction consider the risks, rather than the savings that can be achieved. But this should not be the case – quality has vastly improved and the benefits of offsite construction need to be acknowledged throughout the industry to recognise the real difference it could make to our current housing shortage.
Education is critical here, to dispel negative myths that are still hampering take-up among developers and designers. The London Assembly paper recommended a standardised Manufactured Housing Design Code – an initiative that we should back to amplify the availability of offsite solutions.
The UK housing situation is not unique, so we should look to learn lessons from overseas. If we take Denmark as an example, prefabrication is a mindset. Almost all buildings are designed as precast concrete and will be designed to be prefabricated from the start. In extreme circumstances, if the contractors/suppliers are not available, then a scheme may be redesigned to be built in in-situ concrete. This is the complete opposite of the UK.
In much of Scandinavia, prefabrication is engrained in the culture and taught in detail, even at university. There are national standard guidelines that allow an open supply chain, avoiding narrow bespoke products.
This needs to be replicated in the UK to ensure everyone in the industry has the skills and ability to work on such projects. The method is so widespread due to a labour shortage in the 1950s and 1960s that resulted in a shift towards prefabrication – sound familiar?
In the UK, we already have a number of established offsite solutions, including cross-laminated timber (CLT), volumetric pods, precast and hybrid concrete. However, many of those trying to adopt these methods of construction find that suppliers are already at capacity. There simply aren’t enough factories able to produce the units and more need to be built.
Yet in order to make the construction of a factory viable, there needs to be a clear and continuous pipeline of work, which we do not yet have. Few are making this commitment; those currently building factories tend to be in the driving seat (such as Swan Homes and Legal & General setting up CLT modular factories).
The government needs to provide financial stimulus to incentivise the construction of these factories – this will enable supply chains. The Home Builders’ Fund announced in the Housing White Paper may go some way towards this but is unlikely to go far enough.
There is also the Build Offsite Property Assurance Scheme, which provides an assurance to lenders funding schemes utilising offsite construction.
Delivering change is never simple, but if we are really committed to solving the housing crisis and delivering enough homes for all, we need to embrace offsite construction. With political backing, we need more developers and builders to adopt offsite and we need to design for it from the outset of a project. As an industry, it is our responsibility to take the next step and adjust how we approach our future building methods as a means of getting us closer to a society where housing shortages are a thing of the past. So what are you doing? Don’t miss the offsite boat!