Modern methods of construction are an innovation we need to embrace to tackle the housing crisis

John Newbury, 14 February 2020

Approving development projects that incorporate new initiatives, such as modern methods of construction (MMC), and assessing the risk involved, can be challenging for housing association boards.

This is not surprising – this is a highly complicated and fast-moving industry, and people use a lot of jargon when talking about development. In this blog, when I refer to ‘modern methods of construction’, I am talking about volumetric, factory-built or precision-built homes. These are also categorised by the government as Category 1 – Pre-Manufacturing -3D primary structural systems. I am going to use the phrase ‘factory-built’ as shorthand for this method of delivering MMC.

In the past, housing associations have been open to trialling new technologies ahead of the mainstream housing market. These have ranged from grey-water recycling and air source-heat pumps to photovoltaic electricity production and Passivhaus. There have been successes but also a number of unsuccessful trials of such innovations. It is those failures that can make adoption of other technologies, such as factory-built homes, more difficult.

There is also the legacy issue – we hear the phrase ‘prefab’ bandied about when we talk about factory-built homes and with that comes the negative connotations of failed old technologies, such as post-war pre-fabricated concrete housing systems that were not only visually unappealing but also cold and inefficient. Again, this can place a doubt or two in the mind of a board member when presented with new schemes to be delivered via factory-built means. 

I think the main difference that we see now is that the providers of these factory-built homes have addressed the concerns of stakeholders as part of the research and development process. What we are being asked to approve today is a very different and far more robust proposition.

I strongly believe that what we are seeing is a revolution in housebuilding that we must embrace if we are to achieve our targets for the delivery of new homes and achieve a step change in the consistent quality of the homes that we provide for our residents.

Many manufacturers have achieved Buildoffsite Property Assurance Scheme (BOPAS) accreditation that provides assurance that their homes have a minimum 60-year life – this is actually more than we receive for a traditionally constructed home.  In addition, factory-built homes give us the comfort that homes are assembled in strict quality-controlled conditions.  Every construction stage is documented, and components and lifecycle costs are much easier to manage and forecast.

So, rather than ask the question: ‘how am I able to approve a project delivered using modern methods’, I would ask, ‘what is stopping me from approving homes that are constructed in this way?’. With factory-built homes, we control the design, the components and, importantly, the homes are built in dry conditions with high levels of scrutiny, and to precise standards. This gives us assurance that defects will be minimal when compared to ‘traditional’ build, which is exposed to unpredictable weather. 

As scale increases, we iron out the issues that early adopters of new technology often face, and we address the heart of this matter – increasing delivery and tackling the housing crisis.  It is encouraging to see groups across the country who are aggregating the demand to achieve deals with manufacturers, the very route to achieving the economies that scale brings. 

As chair of RHP and a board member of LiveWest I am delighted to be a part of the National Housing Federation’s Building Better project, which aims to identify manufacturers to work with.  The goal is not just to procure homes but to develop a relationship with manufacturers to constantly improve on the design and quality of the homes being delivered – something that should be important to us as businesses but also, as responsible landlords.

As a board member, all these factors are hugely important to me and represent the type of innovation that drew me to joining the boards of RHP and LiveWest.