A new hope

A Remagin-hosted roundtable discussing the challenges and opportunities of MMC and off-site construction places faith in the next generation.

Modern methods of construction (MMC) seems to have reached a tipping point as more young people enter the construction industry and are aware of its flexibility and benefits. However, Paul Jones, Professor of Architecture at Northumbria University, warns it still faces perception hurdles among  traditional operators.

Peter Forsyth, Director of Strategic Initiatives at McCarthy Stone (a developer and manager of retirement communities), says: “One of the biggest issues that stops MMC being used more widely is the perception that it’s more expensive than other traditional methods of construction. We have proven that’s wrong. It certainly can be more expensive if you don’t implement it properly. You also need to consider whole life value of a project, so it’s important to measure this as well as cost.

“Off-site construction is clearly not as weather-sensitive and so there is an advantage in construction speed and efficiency. You’re not just manufacturing a building in a factory – there is a proper production flow with associated quality controls. Once built, we have experienced significantly fewer defects at handover. At McCarthy Stone, we have proved we can do it; we have several schemes around the United Kingdom designed this way, and we have learnt a lot and we know how to extract the maximum benefits.”

Joanne Gordon, Homes and Development Director at Sunderland-based social housing charity Gentoo Homes, still sees MMC as a bit of a risk. “It’s a tough market for our sector and there are already challenges around traditional construction.” She says housing associations and the wider social housing sector would welcome MMC standardisation and implementation, but only when there is more economic certainty and stability in the wider economy.

John Nordon, Creative Director of Igloo, which is delivering 1,000 new homes at Riverside Sunderland, says planning regulations can sometimes be a constraint on the design and standardisation of off-site, modular housing. He highlights the value of partnerships with local authorities.

Next generation

Forsyth acknowledges that, in any organisation, without support from the very top it is difficult to overcome the inertia to change. He is confident more people will turn to off-site manufacturing to deliver certain types of projects and he believes this will be partly driven by the next generation of people entering the industry.

“There is a new generation of people coming into construction who are aware of MMC. They are perhaps still influenced by those in the sector who have only worked with traditional methods, but there are those who are curious about things and not so fixed in their views,” he says.

Jones adds that over the next ten years it is predicted there will be a massive loss of traditional knowledge and experience as people retire from the industry. “This demographic shift and change will force MMC to be considered and used more.”

Richard Marsden, MD of Sunderland-based architects and engineers BDN, expresses the need for industry and the education sectors to work more closely together to create new courses outside of traditional construction to attract more young people to the sector.

“We will struggle to change perceptions and raise awareness of MMC if young people can’t learn about innovative and different ways of construction. I don’t know where young people go to learn about these things. We need to be creating different pathways,” he notes.

Remagin’s Scott Bibby says it is vital to establish greater links between education and the off-site construction industry. He has already established strong connections with schools, further education colleges and universities across the North of England.

Neil Guthrie, of Sunderland City Council, wholeheartedly agrees that the skills mix in construction needs to change and more young talent needs to be attracted to the sector. “We need to break down what construction is and can be. We need to change the focus for young people and broaden their understanding. We need to promote innovation and the exciting changes taking place in construction,” he says.

Quality and consistency

In terms of what customers and clients demand and want from MMC, Guthrie is quick to highlight key requirements: “MMC has got to deliver speed and quality. The country needs to deliver more housing and accommodation – and quickly. MMC needs to come up with a concept and design, and deliver quickly and to the right quality.”

Guthrie adds: “One of the challenges MMC faces has been the perception that the quality is no better, maybe worse. If you take housing out of a factory environment, it should almost be pristine and have no defects.”

There is acknowledgement that quality and consistency are among the benefits of MMC, but there remains a perception problem – it’s not always straightforward getting that first project perfect.

Richard Crosby, Director at Seismic Group, says: “You have got to learn from each project. You won’t always get it right first time around, but you need to work with your partners to improve. Procurement can be a problem for some companies and organisations, chopping and changing suppliers.”

Forsyth is keen to point out that “traditional construction has not always been that great when it comes to defects”.

Bibby highlights how the off-site construction sector is evolving and that it is important for the sector to keep pushing the merits of MMC more – particularly in light of some high-profile challenges. Scott views off-site construction as the leader for the sector, and like any good leader, it takes less credit and has more scrutiny. “We must continue to drive improvements and performance, and build strong relationships with customers so that together we can educate those resistant to change and educate the next generation entering the industry.”

For more, visit remagin.world

Image credit | Ian McClelland Media / iStock

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