Could we be reaching a watershed moment for MMC and housing?

13th October 2017

Alan Shingler was asked by the Architects' Journal to share his thoughts on the hurdles faced, as well as the opportunities presented, by Modern Methods of Construction.

With public confidence in the construction industry so low following the tragic events at Grenfell, as well as a more varied mix in residential tenures, there seems no better time to embrace Modern Methods of Construction (MMC). However, the possibilities of offsite construction have tantalised architects for decades and – to get significant traction this time around – I think we need to be aware of why historically MMC has yet to transform the mainstream housing market.

As a student I was fascinated by the idea that Design for Manufacturability could revolutionise design and construction. Despite groundbreaking proposals for prefabrication in the 1930s and post-World War II, through to Buckminster Fuller, Eric Lyons and Richard Rogers, remarkably little has changed. We have also seen a plethora of industry initiatives and government reports promoting change, including Michael Latham, John Egan and most recently the Farmer Review entitled ‘Modernise or Die’.

Despite these efforts, offsite manufacturing has yet to drive major change across the UK’s mainstream private housing market. And we should ask why: is it architects’ ability to innovate? Or has MMC never been attractive enough for our clients to fully embrace? I firmly believe it is the latter.

For MMC to take off this time around, architectural innovation needs to be acutely aware of the hurdles for mainstream housing. I believe it is this understanding that is holding back progression; furthermore, it is the architect’s job to study the challenges faced by our clients and innovate around them.

A benefit to MMC that is often quoted is the speed of construction. However, in the private sale market it is not always a commercial advantage to bring all of your products into the marketplace at the same time. MMC would promote a far quicker delivery process, particularly with large developments, but this could lead to flooding the market, thus lessening the client’s ability to control sales values.

If the client is unable to benefit commercially from savings in time onsite, it becomes increasingly difficult to justify a cost premium that is normally associated with MMC when compared to traditional construction methods procured from a housebuilder’s more mature supply chain. Also, for MMC to be financially competitive, you need scale and confidence in a supply chain. Fabrication plants require significant forward investment which does not typically suit the private residential developer who needs to remain agile as the economy fluctuates.

To overcome these issues, we as an industry need to be very clear on the added value of MMC, in particular how it can promote high-quality design which understands the business models of our clients. There are at least two reasons why I think we might have reached a watershed in MMC for housing.

Firstly, there has been significant changes in the tenure of residential coming to market. The delivery of ’private for sale’ housing has remained pretty consistent for the last 50 years, however, Build for Rent is predicted to increase to 40 per cent of the market by 2025. This offers a significant opportunity for MMC, where long-term investment and relative security of supply could enable the necessary forward investment required to develop offsite manufacturing.

The second is consumer confidence, with Grenfell putting the quality of our buildings into sharp focus. For decades, we have been in ‘a race to the bottom’ where cost is too often prioritised over quality. If you took an elemental façade design for a 10-storey residential building as an example you could typically find around 70,000 components. Using the age-old comparison to the motor industry, would you build a car with this many parts onsite, on a customer’s drive, in all weathers? It would be significantly less risky to construct the facade in the controlled conditions of a factory and, at a time when the general public need more reassurance and confidence in how we build, MMC could provide the answer.

There is certainly a window of opportunity for architects to embrace the opportunities that MMC can offer. This can be capitalised on through an increased understanding between clients and architects, creating fertile ground for MMC to be adopted on a transformative scale. Key to realising this step-change in housing delivery is for architects to continue to deliver high-quality spaces and communities whilst also making innovation attractive to clients.