Modern methods of construction (MMC) can help housing associations build more and better homes – but collaboration is key

Helen Greig, 15 July 2020

Building Better began as a big idea in a small room. That big idea was to help the housing association sector build a large proportion of the 300,000 new homes this country needs every year – but cheaper, to a higher standard and more quickly. Sound crazy? Not really – modern methods of construction (MMC) can deliver all of that. But if it was easy we would have done it already. To get there we need to work together as a sector, and in collaboration.

We were on that journey when the coronavirus pandemic struck and – spoiler alert – it didn’t stop us. What it did do though was demonstrate the resilience of manufacturers and made us more determined to get housing associations building with MMC because we still need 300,000 homes a year – and now there was a better understanding of why those homes needed to be better quality, more cost effective and delivered quicker.

One of our key lessons after months of research and years of working in housing associations was that choosing the right manufacturer to deliver your MMC homes was one of the biggest hurdles. Our sector has some incredible people working in development with years of experience, and a great understanding of the development process, the pitfalls, the opportunities but that experience and knowledge is in construction, not manufacturing. And comparing manufactured homes to constructed ones is like comparing a Tesla to a Ford Focus. They might look similar but the process of getting there and the performance of each are completely different. So creating a mechanism that would give housing associations the confidence to know they were choosing the right manufacturer to deliver their homes was critical.

With this in mind, we asked NHF members and the wider sector what they wanted from a manufacturer of homes. We also asked manufacturers what they needed from housing associations and members how many homes they thought they use a manufacturer to produce. We researched the necessary legal input and resources required, and spoke to procurement professionals. Then we did  all this again to make sure we got it right. Here’s what we’ve learnt:

  1. Don’t try and do this on your own. We say this again and again but basically, if you are a housing association looking to build new homes using modern methods of construction, do not try and do an independent pilot site. Instead, you should join a consortium, get together with other housing associations who have already done it, or set up a new consortium.  Just don’t try to do it alone. Manufacturers don’t want another 10-home pilot site that offers them no security of pipeline, you don’t want to be making the same mistakes everyone else has made, and your board won’t thank you for the additional cost you’ll probably accrue. One of our mottos at Building Better is ‘share the learning, share the risk’ because there is some of each with this approach while it is still new. The only way it won’t be new is if we start doing it more and more – together.

  2. Don’t try and do this on your own. No, it’s not a typo. While offsite manufacturing hasn’t taken off in the social housing sector yet, it does not mean that the manufacturers don’t know what they’re doing. Yes, there are some very new and inexperienced manufacturers that you probably want to keep a watching brief on for the time being rather than go full scale into a 100-home deal with (see point one if you want to know how to find out who they are). But there are also some incredibly experienced manufacturers who can advise your consortium on the best approach to get what you need from them. Don’t go to them once you have planning. Don’t go to them with an architect who says they can design for MMC and drafted designs. Go to the manufacturers  first – they will guide you.

  3. Don’t try and do this on your own. Still not a typo. We like to live by what we profess and we decided a long time ago that rather than try and deliver the procurement (we are not procurement professionals), we would work with a procurement organisation. So we set about talking to several procurement organisations from across the country and selected five we would like to meet and discuss this possibility. We met, we discussed, we interviewed, we asked for written submissions and we interviewed again. What we found was that we were completely right to have taken this route. By working with someone who is an expert in their field, we will be able to do so much more, get a much better deal for the sector and increase the numbers of MMC homes constructed over the next five years. Which takes us neatly back to point one. Don’t try and do this on your own.

The organisation we are partnering with for the frameworks is Procurement for Housing. With more than 900 members UK-wide and extensive experience in procurement for the social housing sector, Procurement for Housing has great links with the National Housing Federation, Chartered Institute of Housing and HouseMark. At Building Better we have already spent hours engaging manufacturers, working with housing associations, listening to feedback, working to unblock some of the barriers and linking in with government. Now, with Procurement for Housing, we can feed all of this into a procurement process to deliver the frameworks we think the sector needs and that manufacturers want. We know this journey is going to be exciting, hard and educational. But I’m confident it’s going to work because we’re not doing it on our own.