Anna Kiho HLM Architects MMC Off Site First

 

 

We need more housing now. With more than half of local authorities in the UK likely to miss the housing targets set within their Local Plans, does MMC hold the key to achieving the widely known need for 300,000 new homes a year in the UK?

We are starting to hear positive noises about the acceleration of the uptake in MMC by the residential sector. The recent Savills report (“Spotlight: Modern Methods of Construction” June 2020) states that whilst currently the proportion of homes using MMC is around 6-10%, this figure is set to double in the next 10 years. This is certainly a step in the right direction – from the much-needed increase in housing supply to the reduction in environmental impact of the construction industry that could be achieved by greater adoption of MMC. However, can we really afford to wait another 10 years for just a 10% increase in the use of MMC?

We need more housing now. It is widely known that an estimated 300,000 new homes a year need to be built in England to ensure an adequate supply of safe, secure and affordable homes; whilst statistics released by the National Audit Office (February 2019) stated that more than half of local authorities in the UK are likely to miss the housing targets set within their Local Plans. Whilst the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic remains unknown, this impact will likely be that of further slow-down in delivering new housing via traditional methods, leading to a greater gap between supply and demand.

We also need to get serious about sustainability if we are to meet the Government’s ‘carbon neutral by 2050’ pledge.  The built environment contributes to approximately 30% of the UK’s total carbon footprint and, as construction industry professionals, we clearly have an important role to play. To achieve the commitment to reduce CO2 emissions to 80% of 1990 levels by the year 2050, we must turn our focus to achieving zero embodied energy / carbon, zero energy / carbon in operation, and climate adaptation – a mammoth task if we are relying solely on traditional construction methods.

These benefits are of course only a few of many that the industry can achieve if MMC is truly embraced. However, we have been talking about speeding up delivery and cutting waste (not necessarily just construction waste, but also the intellectual waste of endless re-designing and re-working of proposals due to indecisiveness, value engineering and general inefficiencies in the industry) for decades and we are still not getting there. The old way is clearly “broke”, and we need to accelerate change. We need to think “Offsite First!”.

Offsite First – Why? Why Not?

Anyone familiar with the principles of MMC will know that the earlier in a project the adoption of an off-site approach is considered (in any shape, form or category), the more benefits can be harnessed. It is also a known fact that converting a design based on offsite principles into traditional construction is usually feasible whereas going the other way is likely to be both inefficient and impractical. Therefore, rather than asking ourselves “Why offsite first?”, we should be thinking about how to overcome the challenges and misconceptions that fall into the “Why not” category.

The How – A Call to Arms


Architects & the Design Team:

The first step in the journey to Offsite First needs to be educating ourselves on MMC. As a first step, we do not necessarily need granular knowledge on the fine technical detail of the various systems and components. What is essential is a familiarity with the implications that adopting MMC (particularly Category 1) will have on the design process – key decisions need to be made early and the design approach needs to have much more rigour than typically required for traditional construction. Collaboration with MMC specialists (whether manufacturers or contractors) from early design stages would certainly be a great benefit, particularly when combined with clear BIM protocols. However, designing with offsite principles in mind needs to become second nature for us.
Aside from re-thinking our own approach to design and adapting our processes, there also seems to be a need to address the issue of “Placemaking with MMC”, which has recently been cropping up as a common webinar topic, suggesting there is some perceived disconnect between offsite construction and aesthetic quality. This is a symptom of a general lack of confidence that needs to be addressed as a priority if we are to accelerate the widespread adoption of MMC in the residential sector. Of course, we can ‘placemake’ with MMC – this is obvious. MMC does not limit opportunities for making places that are socially sustainable in that they are attractive, desirable and that people are proud to call their home. These qualities do not really have much to do with how they are constructed – it is just about good design. The industry has come a long way since the prefabricated housing estates of the 1960s that some may still consider representative of ‘off-site’. It is our duty as architects and designers to shatter the myth that the use of MMC today will still result in buildings that are somehow ‘less’.


Clients:

Whilst architects’ efforts in promoting MMC and good design would likely have the greatest impact on Local Authority planning departments and general public perception of MMC, client organisations also have a duty – to not only familiarise and educate themselves on the subject, but more importantly to be brave and give serious consideration to stepping away from the traditional and comfortable way of doing things. To adopt MMC in a meaningful way, a whole new mindset is required. From an early engagement with the offsite supplier or main contractor, which may also require a different approach to procurement, to taking a more balanced view of costs and considering the potentially higher capital costs of MMC alongside the overall programme savings offered. Armed with this knowledge and mindset, overcoming common challenges, such as convincing investors or lenders that MMC is the way forward, should make for a smoother journey.

A spirit of collaboration would also come in handy – working with other client organisations to potentially standardise the residential offer would likely unlock further efficiencies, whether in the form of a more streamlined design programme or in the standardisation of products from the MMC supply chain alongside clarity with regards to cost metrics.


MMC Contractors & Manufacturers:

The idea of collaboration brings us to the third key group to consider – the supply chain and delivery partners. There are other groups, such as policymakers, but their involvement is likely a longer-term gain. Rather than a discussion on technical considerations that this group will inevitably be much more familiar with, the ‘call to arms’ message is simple – there is plenty of room for everyone. No need to worry about having the latest proprietary innovation, quite the opposite. Standardisation of systems and connections with the ultimate aim of working towards a ‘universal platform’ (with all the necessary accreditations and warranties in place) would surely be one of the greatest accelerators in the process.


We know there is a long way to go for MMC to become as acceptable and easy a solution as traditional construction, so no better time to start driving this change than the present. Let’s educate, collaborate and be brave – think “Offsite First”.

 

We also need to get serious about sustainability if we are to meet the Government’s ‘carbon neutral by 2050’ pledge. The built environment contributes to approximately 30% of the UK’s total carbon footprint and, as construction industry professionals, we clearly have an important role to play. To achieve the commitment to reduce CO2 emissions to 80% of 1990 levels by the year 2050, we must turn our focus to achieving zero embodied energy / carbon, zero energy / carbon in operation, and climate adaptation – a mammoth task if we are relying solely on traditional construction methods.

Anna Kiho