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A very British housing revolution

Are modern methods of construction slowly taking over development in this green and pleasant land?

Mark Cantrell investigates.

As revolutions go, it’s a steady affair more akin to the slow measured pace of evolution than a cataclysmic transformation of the urban landscape. Despite the rabble rousing and flag waving from the Government barricades, more sober heads urge caution when it comes to the application of modern methods of construction (MMC).

It’s the kind of banner phrase politicians love after all – meaningful in a meaningless sort of way – that nevertheless conveys the thrusting hi-tech individuality of 21st century aspirational living. Certainly, it suggests a world far-removed from the days of ‘prefab’ with its Stalinist overtures to drab and fast-rotting conformity.

On the contrary, if you believe the hype, MMC can save the Earth – and do it in style and comfort too. Best of all, perhaps, it permits the politicos to play the inclusive game. After all, the promise of MMC allows low-cost, mass-produced homes with no loss of quality: remember John Prescott’s £60,000 house building challenge.

Prescott might have fallen out of favour, but MMC is holding its own and steadily gaining ground; it still has a long way to go but it is showing that beneath the rhetoric and promises, there are hard arguments in its favour. These need to be applied cautiously, however, as with anything new, one learns the best and most appropriate use of MMC. As with any technique, it is not a one-size-fits-all affair – especially given the potentially bewildering variety of MMC systems and components. By its very nature, it won’t be suitable everywhere – hence the cautious sober approach of those putting the materials into practice. “We use MMC, but it does need to be carefully considered for its benefits,” Andy Senatore, technical director at Countryside Properties said. “We’re really not into using MMC just for the sake of a good story. It’s by no means a case of MMC good, traditional bad.""It has to be weighed up for each development. There has been an expectation that MMC will just change [house building] over night, but I think it has to evolve. It’s a process and you get spin offs from it but it has a long way to go.”

So, of course MMC can’t save the Earth but it can play a part in creating the more ecologically friendly homes, with better insulation values to create lower fuel bills and therefore a smaller ‘carbon footprint’ – as well as lower bills. Other oft-cited benefits include speedier construction, greater control of the product and therefore less defects thanks to the factory process, cheaper production of the components, therefore less house-build costs overall, and greater design flexibility so architects and designers can really, well, go to town in their vision.

The cited benefits are as varied as the techniques, processes and systems themselves. These are further sub-divided into broad categories. Volumetric construction sees the entire home prefabricated off-site as modules, which are then assembled on site. These modules can be basic or fully finished and serviced units.

Panelised construction sees the use of flat panels – constructed either of wood or steel – that again are manufactured off-site and then assembled on site in a kind of ‘kit house’ system. The hybrid method, also called semi-volumetric, combines the panel and pod approach to home assembly. The frame of the house might be either timber or steel. The final broad category makes use ofwhat is called non-off-site MMC. This makes use of techniques and structural systems such as concrete ‘tunnel form’ or ‘thin joint blocks’. In essence, MMC covers not only materials, but systems that include management systems, as well as techniques that bring to bear the factory or factory-type production line method.

In and of itself, these are yet further tools in the builder’s toolbox, but it is the nature of innovation that not everything works. For every system that has rolled off the production line to find use on building sites across the country, will be a hoard of the forgotten dead: the techniques that didn’t make it.

So there is still wariness with MMC, combined with a certain lingering residue of historic experiences from those infamous 1960s prefabs. Nobody is eager to repeat those mistakes, and given that companies – particularly the manufacturers themselves – have a vested interest in MMC working, the mistakes of the past are something they cannot permit.

Paul McGivern, best practice manager at English Partnerships said: “Suppliers are very serious about not repeating the mistakes that occurred in the past with so-called prefabs. Many have embraced such concepts as whole life costing in their product development, so they’re thinking about more than just the initial build. The idea is to think about how those materials and systems coming together into a product might endure over a period of time.”

These days, the latent image of the old prefab structures is not deemed to be a problem among the public’s perception, however. As Graham Raven, convenor of the trade body Steel Homes Group said: “I think people now do actually understand the difference when the term is pre-fabricated, as opposed to ‘prefabs’. There’s enough examples now that they are clearly different to the prefabs.”

It’s with the mortgage lending and insurance sectors that the real concerns remain. In part, these concerns are fuelled by the memory of earlier prefab construction, and earlier generations of what it calls non-traditional construction methods. It doesn’t just cover the mortgage sector, but also the lending of private finance to social housing developments. Regardless of the construction methods – traditional or MMC – the house and its components must be able to stand the test of time.

“The main concern for lenders on properties built using innovative construction is that we often don’t know how they will perform over the full potential life of a mortgage and beyond,” said David Hylton, of Nationwide Building Society. “We need to know that they will retain their value and marketability in a similar way to conventional structures, without abnormal expenditure on maintenance and repair.”

To address these concerns, the Building Research Establishment (BRE), working with the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) launched a new standard earlier this year – LPS 2020. The new standard is intended to address the lending industry’s concerns by assessing innovative building systems, regardless of type, material or form of construction. It tests how they measure up to building regulations but also looks at crucial lending issues such as durability, resilience, ease of repair and some aspects of its whole life performance. One crucial aspect is that the building must endure for at least 60 years.

Peter Bonfield, of the BRE, said: “The new standard will increase the confidence of insurers, mortgage lenders and regulators in innovative systems. It will help the UK house building industry to adopt innovative systems and so contribute towards accelerated delivery in the UK’s house building sector.”

To date, the LPS 2020 standard applies only to building systems and components, rather than an entire building, but the standard is to be developed further. It all helps to quantify and reassure over the performance of new methods, but it is by no means the first application of standards to MMC. Some of the systems in use already have warranty approval from such bodies as the NHBC and Zurich, among others, such as for example the Kingspan Tek timber frame panel system – that played a key part in winning John Prescott’s £60,000 house competition for the SixtyK consortium.

Much of the impetus to date for the use of MMC has come from the social sector, where a raft of planning and building regulations, along with the Government’s active promotion of MMC, has provided a significant driving force. Inevitably, this impetus is less within the private sector, but even there the arguments for its use are felt, as the industry has to respond to market demands for cost efficiencies, energy and environmental sustainability – not to mention quality.

Given that the lion’s share of MMC is applied to the social sector, a degree of cynicism is perhaps difficult to avoid. It is hard to escape the notion that this sector is being used a test bed.

“That seems to be the case in the UK,” McGivern agreed. “MMC is widely used in all sectors overseas, particularly on the continent and Canada, but my feeling is that, yet again, more developers are becoming convinced about the benefits of MMC and therefore, to an extent that they see both a financial and a technical case for the adoption of MMC, they are beginning to use it on their own private developments.”

English Partnerships takes no view on individual MMC techniques, though it is keen to develop its use across all sectors. McGivern added: “In 2004, English Partnerships adopted a target of 25 per cent of the homes that it enables or facilitates being built on its land with MMC. We certainly don’t want to have a situation where MMC is stigmatised as only for the affordable or social housing, so that 25 per cent applies to all our portfolio whether private or affordable.”

There is still a great deal of research being conducted to test the properties of MMC. Last month, for instance, the BRE announced the start of construction of the SmartLife project in Fenland, Cambridgeshire. Together with English Partnerships, the Housing Corporation, Fenland District Council and the DCLG, the BRE is building 106 homes for private buying and for housing association tenants. This development is a true test-bed: 60 per cent of the houses will be built using MMC and the rest with traditional ‘brick and block’ methods. Every step, every aspect, from construction to occupancy, is to be tested and measured to gain a comprehensive understanding of performance.

Whatever the results from this live-in laboratory, MMC is slowly gaining ground with those who use it. The test is surely in the money, with house builders – once resistant to MMC – quite literally buying into the manufacturing method. For example, Persimmon, which through its buy-out of Westbury Homes, gained ownership of Space4; Barratt moved into steel MMC last year, when it formed the joint venture Advance Housing with Terrapin, and Redrow has formed a joint venture partnership with Corus.

McGivern added: “My sense is that that there is definitely a maturing of the industry and there seems to be much more of an uptake than there was two or three years ago. The house builders are putting their money where there mouths are because they see the potential not just in the social/affordable sector but also in the private sector on their own land.”

So, it appears that the praise of politicians isn’t prejudicing the technology’s shot at proving itself fit for the future.

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