The government is promoting modern methods of construction to make homes cheaper, but what are the true costs of these methods for the people who build and inhabit them?
Last month, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation announced that it was to demolish the cutting-edge Caspar development in Leeds, which has been standing for less than two years. This type of event – unfortunate but probably quite rare – colours views on modern methods of construction (MMC). My point is not about these high-profile issues, however. It is much more about the day to day.
Every year, substantially more money is spent on housing maintenance than on new-build construction, both in the public and private sectors. Yet the overwhelming drive from government, through the agency of the Housing Corporation (soon to be Communities England), is to improve the capital cost efficiency of new build, in great part through the use of MMC.
In the sixties and seventies, many system-built housing projects were popular with residents and seen as desirable places to live. However, over time, they deteriorated, became difficult to maintain and difficult to let. In the new generation of MMC dwellings, have we learned from these lessons, or are we actually exacerbating the situation?
One of the main selling features of MMC is that it reduces the need for skilled site operatives and that the factory-constructed units are produced to a higher-quality finish than their traditional counterparts.
Inevitably, though, these dwellings will need to be maintained and remodelled at some point. It is part of the human condition to want to make our houses into homes and this is no less true of social rented properties than it is of privately owned homes.
This can involve anything from nailing in a picture hook, which punctures the damp-proof membrane of the MMC panel system, to some minor rewiring or replumbing, which destroys the factory-applied wall finish.
Factory-installed wiring is plugged together on site, but Who will mend it when it goes wrong or alter it when users’ needs change?
When I raised this issue with colleagues in social rented housing, I was surprised to find that although they had detailed figures on the cost of maintenance of their properties, they had not sorted them by construction type so could not assess the long-term occupation costs of MMC projects. Few MMC dwellings are more than 10 years old, so long-term maintenance issues may not yet have come to light. However, in the Decent Homes programme, “non-standard” construction types are often separated out as a budget head, as they require a greater degree of design and planning before refurbishment starts. Also, they are often more expensive to bring up to an acceptable standard, so much so that many are being demolished after only 40 or 50 years, rather than being refurbished.
I believe the increase in MMC will contribute to the further dumbing-down of skilled tradespeople, which will be a major problem for repair and maintenance work in the future. Factory-installed wiring and plumbing is plugged together on site to make robust circuits, but who will mend it when it goes wrong or alter it as the demands of the building users change?
Many MMC components are made outside the UK. Northern Europe has used these systems for many years and Eastern Europe and China are now making an impact on the MMC market. This has made a significant contribution to reducing the component cost of MMC homes, but what is the overall cost?
Although there are many demonstration projects and great examples of cutting-edge technology, the mundane truth is that most MMC dwellings on schemes funded by the Housing Corporation are built to minimum compliance standards. Their component parts are often made using low-cost labour in conditions that would not be acceptable in the UK, are transported thousands of miles and are erected using minimal site labour – often brought in by the installer, so providing no local employment. They look nice and shiny, but what will these homes be like to live in in 20 years’ time?
Last December, Ruth Kelly announced a target for all new-build dwellings to be carbon-neutral within 10 years. I would like to raise the bar of that challenge – to make all new-build dwellings carbon-neutral from the first stage of construction to the last stage of demolition, with a target life of at least 200 years and to be able to sustain a 4°C rise in summer temperatures over that period.
Without some strong intervention from government, we may be constructing buildings that will not only be difficult to maintain, but that will be barely habitable in the hotter summer months that we are almost certainly going to see.
Sir Digby Jones is the government’s skills envoy and the former director-general of the CBI. He is a non-executive director of Bucknall Austin What do you think? Email firstname.lastname@example.org