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Last edited 08 Mar 2021
Modern methods of construction
Since the Second World War, and the desperate need to deliver new housing quickly, modern methods of construction (MMC, or 'smart construction') has been promoted as a way of working more effectively to achieve more without using more. It centres around the use of off-site construction techniques that can benefit from factory conditions and mass production techniques.
In November 2005, again in the midst of a housing crisis, The National Audit Office (NAO) published 'Using modern methods of construction to build homes more quickly and efficiently'. It was commissioned by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Housing Corporation, and was indented to identify ways of getting best value when using MMC. It defined MMC as '…a process to produce more, better quality homes in less time.'
A parallel report published in February 2006 by the Barker 33 Cross-Industry Group, set up to examine why the uptake of MMC was low, suggested that; 'Modern methods of construction are about better products and processes. They aim to improve business efficiency, quality, customer satisfaction, environmental performance, sustainability and the predictability of delivery timescales. Modern methods of construction are, therefore, more broadly based than a particular focus on product. They engage people to seek improvement, through better processes, in the delivery and performance of construction.'
The NAO suggested modern methods of construction included:
- Panellised units produced in a factory and assembled on-site to produce a three-dimensional structure.
- Volumetric construction to produce three-dimensional modular units in controlled factory conditions prior to transport to site.
- Hybrid techniques that combine both panellised and volumetric approaches.
- Floor or roof cassettes, pre-cast concrete foundation assemblies, pre-formed wiring looms, mechanical engineering composites and innovative techniques such as tunnel form or thin-joint block work.
- It should be possible to build up to four times as many homes with the same on-site labour.
- On-site construction time could be reduced by more than half.
- Building performance could be at least as good.
- Cost ranges would be comparable depending on specific project circumstances, although they would be higher on average.
- Risks increased at early stages of the development process so good risk management would become even more important.
- Tight liaison with planning authorities would be vital.
- Benefits would be wasted if projects were not properly planned.
Generally however it was considered that uptake was poor. Richard Jones, a partner at EC Harris, said, “…for years the industry tried to push modern methods of construction and it never really took off because it required a different approach and at the time the housebuilders didn't need a different approach. They were doing okay the way things were.”
The Barker 33 Group identified a number of barriers to uptake, including; approval delays, regulatory complexity and change, inadequate certification and the training needs of site and professional staff. Dr Ashley Lane, chair of the Barker 33 Group said: "The issue is not about the product. It's about skills: logistics and planning and project management, training labour, education."
However, a study by the NHBC foundation, published in June 2016 found that 98% of the organisations had used or considered the use of an MMC approach on at least one of their developments in the previous three years. More than 75% cited a faster build programme and more than 50% suggested there was improved build quality. (Ref. Modern methods of construction: views from the industry (NF70).) But the majority of organisations considered themselves 'late adopters' or 'followers' of the volumetric construction, pod and panelised forms of MMC, not 'market leaders'
Neil Smith, Head of Research and Innovation at NHBC said: “This report shows the high hopes invested in MMC, as a means of delivering transformational change to the house-building industry, have not yet been realised on the scale anticipated by its champions. It also illustrates that although cautious about over- commitment, the industry is nevertheless embracing MMC in many guises, and stands ready to explore new options and innovations.”
In February 2017, The National House Building Council (NHBC) launched an online MMC hub to help inform house-builders about modern methods of construction. Standards manager Paul Cribbens said; “We hope that the new hub will act as the leading resource for manufacturers wanting to apply for a review, with details of the building systems currently accepted together with the very latest research.”
It said: 'The government will use its purchasing power to drive adoption of modern methods of construction, such as offsite manufacturing... Building on progress made to date, the Department for Transport, the Department of Health, the Department for Education, the Ministry of Justice, and the Ministry of Defence will adopt a presumption in favour of offsite construction by 2019 across suitable capital programmes, where it represents best value for money.'
Mark Farmer, author of 'Modernise or Die' responded to the news by calling it 'extremely significant', and said that government '...has listened to the call for leadership of the construction modernisation challenge. The supply chain development this underpins will ultimately transfer into manufactured housing market.'
MMC was further endorsed by:
- Industrial Strategy: building a Britain fit for the future.
- Construction sector deal.
- Transforming Infrastructure Performance.
The third annual survey of the UK housebuilding industry, published by Lloyds Bank on 26 January 2018 revealed that 61% of housebuilders were investing in site-based modern methods of construction. (Ref. http://resources.lloydsbank.com/insight/housebuilding-report/)
On 26 April 2018, in evidence submitted to The House of Lords Science & Technology Committee enquiry into offsite manufacturing, the Building Alliance suggested that the materials and systems adopted by modern methods of construction are almost exclusively imported and this will; “…undermine investment in British Manufactured masonry products that are preferred by consumers, cost some 15% less, are non-combustible and flexible and are built to last 150 years.”
They went on to suggest that; “We are currently witnessing government sponsored market interference on an unprecedented scale. That is supported by significant tax payer’s subsidies and Homes England funding is now being limited to projects that feature modular or off-site construction. This practice is anti-competitive and unfair to the British masonry industry." (Ref. http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/science-and-technology-committee-lords/offsite-manufacture-for-construction/written/82010.html)
Other criticisms relate to the difficulty of defining the precise meaning of 'modern methods of construction'. Of particular concern is the over-hyped do-or-die nature of the supporting rhetoric. There is arguably nothing especially 'modern' about a narrative which proposes simplistic technical fixes for the supposed shortcomings of the construction sector. From this perspective, narratives such as 'Modernise or Die" can be interpreted as part of the problem whereby ill-defined notions of innovation are consistently prioritised over regulation. (Ref: https://www.buildingsandcities.org/insights/commentaries/modern-methods-of-construction.html).
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