As the government announces homebuilding overhaul, is the future modular?
With news that the government is committed to levelling up the regions with a major reallocation of the housing budget, is it time for modular construction to help deliver 300,000 new homes a year?
With underlying housing issues brought into sharp relief by the Covid crisis, is it time to stop thinking of modular building as an interesting sideline and commit to investing in MMC to deliver sustainable and high quality homes, fast.
A modular revolution
Shaking off its reputation as low quality housing, MMC has been embraced in projects as diverse as a modular reactor building at Hinkley C and bridges for the major HS2 infrastructure project. But if the revolution is being embraced by other construction sectors, why does modular still have a reputation as being interesting but pricey when it comes to building homes for the 21st century?
The precision, speed and long term savings of low carbon modular housing should be a no-brainer. And the experience of constructing the experience of constructing the Hinkley Point C Power Station has lessons to teach about taking production off-site where site conditions and bad weather are no longer an issue. This minimises risks and makes quality control and procurement processes far more robust and easier to manage.
But can modular silence the critics? It's fair to say that there have been questions around the quality of MMC and whether it can ever match traditional methods of construction. But continual improvements in technology and design ensure that major projects with highly detailed and complex elements are right at the forefront in quality control. And as technology rolls out across the industry even smaller players can design and manufacture to achievable tolerances which makes modular construction available right across the sector.
But if technological innovation is critical to the future of modular it comes at a price, requiring significant investment. This can be met by a shift from valuation based payments to milestone payments designed to settle the nerves of developers confronted with high front end costs. Contractors will be looking to lock in funds to kickstart construction and contracts are likely to have to adapt to meet the shift in procurement standards.
Fortunately, major projects are starting to come on stream to assist developers in benefitting from long-term economies of scale and process innovations. Like Newham Council who have agreed a plan to build hundreds of affordable homes on the rooftops of existing blocks. By developing the projects through Populo Living, Newham's wholly owned housing company, new homes can be built to carbon-zero standards with costs reduced by as much as 25%.
Unlike traditional construction, MMC can be delivered by semi-skilled labour for most of the process with scarcer and more expensive skilled labour required only at the end of the project. So is modular the future? With a skills shortage looming and ambitious building and carbon-zero targets to be met modular off-site construction offers developers an efficient and sustainable way to deliver on major projects and meet key public indicators for success.