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Collaboration key to unlock modern methods of construction

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A collaborative approach lies at the heart of scaling up modern methods of construction (MMC) in the UK, to simultaneously help solve the housing crisis and drive down construction-related greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new collaborative report from law firm Womble Bond Dickinson and industry leaders.

As part of its re:build Britain campaign, Womble Bond Dickinson has worked closely with a range of organisations from across the housing industry to identify the challenges and opportunities around scaling up MMC in the UK and the benefits it can offer. This viewpoint comes at a time when 340,000 new homes need to be constructed each year until 2013 to meet UK demand.

Homes England, Faithful + Gould, Bristol Housing Festival and Northumbria University contributed with Womble Bond Dickinson to the report, which outlines the advantages that MMC can offer the UK and the construction industry as well as the obstacles that need to be overcome to ensure growth.

With challenges such as materials and skills shortages facing the sector and the UK, MMC presents several new opportunities for the market, including the ability to create quality homes at scale and pace with reduced labour costs and without geographical restrictions, thousands of new jobs, and lower construction-related carbon emissions.

The scale-up of MMC would also develop a more diverse construction industry attracting new skills and recruits. If, per year, 75,000 modular homes are constructed it could create up to 50,000 new jobs – part of the puzzle is linking up education and industry – T-Levels also have a role to play.

Susan Dawson, senior lecturer in architecture and built environment at Northumbria University and board member of Constructing Excellence in the North East (CENE), and report contributor, said: “A call to action to industry and education is needed to make a real step-change.

“Education and industry need to work together to redefine our roles in the education process and establish common goals to co-develop and co-deliver currency in the curriculum.”

Norway/Japan models

As part of the research, the widespread adoption of MMC in countries such as Norway and Japan was examined to see where successes could be replicated closer to home, taking account of a wider range of housing needs and bringing MMC into the mainstream. As a nation, Japan has been embracing MMC for the past 50 years and, consequently, Tokyo currently has the capacity to build more houses per year than the entire of the UK.

The perception of MMC outside of the UK is different too. An MMC home in Japan is an aspirational and mid-upper market product where customers work with designers to develop homes that meet their specific needs.

Edward Jezeph, senior investments manager at Homes England, explained that the perception of residential MMC homes in the UK so far is that it’s just for social housing and the huge benefits of flexibility and customisation are missed. 

“The potential carbon savings of manufacturing a fairly simple building in a factory, as opposed to delivering the traditional construction process to site, can be several tons or even tens of tonnes of CO2.”

Stephen Wightman, Faithful + Gould

In the UK, volume housebuilding is driven by speculation, rather than being consumer-led – homes having been in high demand for so long the driver is ‘need’ rather than ‘want’. MMC, and the pace at which it can deliver homes, has the opportunity to turn the UK housing market on its head.

As well as offering bespoke private residential properties, MMC could also provide solutions to the current housing crisis in the UK. Jessie Wilde, deputy project director at Bristol Housing Festival, said: “Might MMC offer a new supply chain, built around a new business model and underpinned with a new model of collaboration to supply quality, affordable, sustainable homes at pace? It certainly has the potential.”

As well as contributing to solving the housing crisis, MMC can also support the UK government’s drive to become net zero by 2050, with the built environment contributing around 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint. Although a full assessment of the environmental impact of MMC is yet to be completed, Stephen Wightman of Faithful + Gould said: “The potential carbon savings of manufacturing a fairly simple building in a factory, as opposed to delivering the traditional construction process to site, can be several tons or even tens of tonnes of CO2.”

There is also consumer demand for environmentally friendly homes that can be harnessed, as Ian Atkinson, construction partner at law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, points out: “Much like ‘help to buy’, the MMC sector may be crying out for the carrot to motivate consumers to choose a home that could contribute to net zero targets – a ‘buy to help’, if you will.”

Even though the UK is some way behind Japan and Norway in maximising the benefits of MMC, Joseph Worland, associate director (housing) at Lloyds Bank, believes the UK industry is heading in a direction where MMC will be more favoured: “In the housing sector we have seen the larger builders introduce MMC to a significant proportion of their homes, supported by ambitions on build quality and sustainability.”

To find out more, read Womble Bond Dickinson’s report here.

You can also join Womble Bond Dickinson’s MMC experts panel discussion on Wednesday 2 March at 10am. Register here

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