The government’s cross-industry working group on MMC should help eliminate much confusion and misinterpretation

Rory O'Hagan BW 2019

In the world of the modern methods of construction (MMC), it’s easy to get your head in a spin with the various terminology. This is true for property in general and, in many cases, is a hindrance more than a help.

But while acronyms can speed up correspondence and streamline processes, they can also become an umbrella that many divergent and contrasting terms sit under, which can ultimately cause confusion and misinterpretation. And, at such a crucial time for MMC, this is a step in the wrong direction.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) launching a definition framework for MMC will help bring much-needed clarity to an exciting and fast-growing sector of the built environment. By refining definitions and introducing seven tiered categorisations of MMC, the built environment industry can clean up the messy classifications it currently wrestles with.

The categories set out by the working group span from one to seven to frame the spectrum of MMC. This is a range of approaches that encompasses offsite, near-site and on-site pre-manufacturing, process improvements and technology applications. Categories six and seven cover traditional site-based construction, while categories one to five define offsite and near-site pre-manufacturing process.

Read: Modern methods too expensive for smaller firms, says housebuilder

The benefit of creating this spectrum extends beyond those manufacturing, designing and developing – it tells the rest of the world that MMC is growing up and learning to speak a commonly understood language. This will, to some extent, help build the case for MMC in circles that currently see it as a confusing or risky endeavour. For MMC to truly scale up across the UK – and support the delivery of the housing and infrastructure Britain needs –  then institutional investors and lenders need to understand the variety and diversity within MMC, the various risk profiles and how each category works in practice.

What’s more, this framework will also create the opportunity to gather more comprehensive data sets on the use of MMC, the build experience and the ongoing performance of the delivered project. This will make a vital difference to how our understanding of emerging build technology develops and the industry’s ability to evaluate the different ways available of increasing the “pre-manufactured value” (PMV) of MMC-delivered assets. It will also provide clients with the hard empirical evidence needed to inform large-scale development and investment.

This framework will also have significant impacts on stakeholders right across the property and construction industries. Put simply, greater clarity builds confidence, and more confidence attracts investment and lending which then supports growth of the new model, driving it towards maturity. We anticipate a much broader and deeper MMC offering by the middle of the next decade that will probably out-compete traditional methods of construction across all building types and location. But this can only happen when barriers to entry are lowered so innovators and entrepreneurs can enter the industry and build new delivery models and platforms.

More importantly, these MMC definitions must be owned and regulated by a nonpartisan body – such as the British Standards Institution – to help build a consensus across multiple industries and ensure that innovation and entrepreneurship is not stifled in favour of one specific MMC system. Doing otherwise at this stage would be foolish for the entire industry.

Scaled-up and widespread adoption of MMC will reduce build times on sites throughout the country. This, coupled with more value being created on factory floors, will aid in directly addressing the UK’s poor productivity performance while making a career in construction a more attractive, high-tech prospect for young people. As designers, we need to fully embrace these new and exciting opportunities and stop moaning about ever-increasing constraints on our creativity.

To me, this definition framework feels like a real turning point for MMC. Through this clarifying exercise, we are close to agreeing a language with which everyone in the sector can communicate. This coming change is a huge opportunity for UK plc. We either embrace innovation or we fade into obscurity. 

Rory O’Hagan, director at Assael Architecture