Modern methods of construction are seen as the silver bullet for the housing crisis, but we need change through the whole supply chain to deliver real results, says Mace’s Mark Reynolds
Global cities are growing at an unprecedented pace, and are critically important to delivering long-term, sustainable economic growth and reducing global inequality and poverty. In the UK, pressure from the housing shortage has made housebuilding a critical political issue.
Modern methods of construction – or MMC for short – have for years been heralded as the silver bullet for many of the industry’s problems. MMC has been suggested as the solution for challenges as diverse as low productivity, sustainability and the skills shortage.
In reality, the definition is broad and real progress on site has been limited. Our sector does not adopt new ways of working quickly or easily. But it finally feels like we are on the verge: from huge investments in offsite construction facilities to the adoption of design for manufacture and assembly processes by government departments, MMC is beginning to become mainstream.
Where we’re using more preassembled parts, our productivity measures can reach more than £85 per hour, compared with £40 on projects where we’re not
However, often the business case is hard to prove and clients are rightly wary of relying on technology or techniques that they haven’t seen in action before. The construction sector needs to work hard to prove the value of our innovation if we want to be taken seriously and deliver real change.
Proving the business case
At Mace, we’ve been developing a new model of construction focusing on offsite manufacturing and on-site assembly using temporary factory sites.
At N08 East Village in Stratford, east London, we have developed our “rising factories” in the form of a temporary steel-framed factory structure that sits over the top of each of the two residential towers, creating a waterproof factory environment that climbs with the building as each floor is constructed. In this way we built 18 fully-clad storeys on two separate residential towers in 18 weeks. We’ve proven there that MMC can change the way we work for the better – but it will require a fundamental shift in attitudes.
The next generation of construction technologies will rely on agile working. Construction sites will soon have more in common with a car factory than with today’s model. “Just in time” deliveries must be the norm. Activity must be carefully planned around the delivery of pre-manufactured parts, minimising installation times, reducing the number of workers on site and improving quality.
From our internal productivity benchmarking, comparing cost against hours worked, we know that using modular and preassembly noticeably improves our performance. On projects where we’re using more preassembled parts, our productivity measures can comfortably reach more than £85 per hour, compared with £40 on projects where we’re not.
At East Village, our project team fine-tuned each step of the construction phases down to the minute, with construction materials arriving on site from a logistics depot exactly when required.
Of course, our offsite manufacture/on-site assembly strategy is only one option – other types of MMC will be more suitable for specific projects. Regardless of what kind you adopt or how you do it, the potential for the UK and the industry is huge. Higher productivity, improved quality, faster housebuilding and safer working are just the beginning. The UK has the opportunity – particularly post-Brexit – to become the world’s leading exporter of cutting-edge construction services.
Technology and political pressure are driving a wholesale change in how we build, and the next few years will decide whether the UK is at the forefront of that revolution or if we are running to catch up. That means it is up to all of us – from tier-one contractors to designers, the supply chain and clients – to work together to deliver MMC in a consistent and reliable way across projects, driving adoption. This won’t be painless. Wholesale changes like this take time, and cost money. With the world moving so quickly, however, the question is: can we afford not to?
Mark Reynolds is chief executive of Mace