To meet its targets, the government needs an industry that, in truth, doesn’t exist yet. Meet the organisation helping housebuilders navigate their way into the brave new world

Amid the welter of initiatives ushered in by the Communities Plan, it’s easy to get lost in the muddle of trade and government bodies involved. What has certainly been needed is the following: a strategic body to oversee how private housebuilders, public housing associations and registered social landlords interact with each other; someone to judge who’s embracing sustainability and who’s not; and, most of all, a body to encourage a fragmented industry to work together to up their game and have a remote chance of building 200,000 extra homes by 2016.

The government has not been much involved in setting up this entity. Instead, the Housing Forum, an influential part of Constructing Excellence, has taken on the task. The Forum has established itself as the only cross-sector organisation covering private, public and social sectors and their supply chains. It provides a member network of innovators who share knowledge and experience through its demonstrations portfolio and working groups.

“Our great strength is that we don’t have any self-interest,” says Judith Harrison, who heads up the Forum. “Other bodies will tend to focus on their own particular area, but we’re only interested in driving forward the industry through our network of members and demonstrators.”

And the way to do this is through Modern Methods of Construction. The term, coined by regeneration minister Lord Rooker, covers the whole range of new systems being used in the sector. This includes using framed, panelled and volumetric systems and trying to use factory-made elements such as floors, roofs and block work. The problem at the moment, according to Harrison, is that most firms in the housing sector are using MMC in a piecemeal way, without the process changes required to make a real difference.

“Most housebuilders and housing associations using MMC haven’t succeeded because they’re using it with an old business model of building homes,” she says. “There’s still too much work involved in one group buying the land, one designing the house and then bringing in the contractor.”

Harrison believes the way forward is to create a more product-led system, reminiscent of the way someone buys a car by looking at designs in a catalogue. She accepts that this is what Sir John Egan wrote in 1998, but the Housing Forum is at the centre of brainstorming how to finally achieve this in the construction industry.

Getting volumes flowing

“We can’t deliver the Communities Plan by working in a piecemeal fashion on site,” she says. “We have to work out how to get volumes flowing and increase continuity.”

In Holland, Scandinavia and various other countries around the world this is how they do it. The DTI has just financed a mission to Germany to look at MMC projects. But one obvious barrier is that this brave new world of integrated supply chains is not necessarily how the UK market works at the moment.

Most housebuilders using MMC haven’t succeeded because they’re using it with an old business model

“Industry leaders are seeing that some of the leading housebuilders are not cutting edge,” says Harrison. “But there are a lot of innovative builders and contractors who are not involved in housing who may be thinking of getting involved.”

The point should cause the major housebuilders to pause for thought. If construction does modernise itself, it’s quite possible that in 20 years the “building” part of housebuilding will be assembling ready-made factory parts rather than a drawn-out site business. And if it is, it won’t matter if a firm doesn’t have a history of housebuilding. Firms developing houses may become more like developers, handling the buying and selling of land. In that case, innovative firms already looking at integrated supply chains and familiar with MMC will be in the driving seat. Firms like Laing O’Rourke could see a lot of work coming their way.

But at the moment there’s still a hefty dislike of MMC. It’s seen as too expensive and potentially formulaic. So the Forum has got involved in a number of initiatives to improve its image. Most banks are loath to sell mortgages for MMC homes because there is no reliable data on how long they will last. So the Forum is supporting BRE, which is working up an accreditation system for all building components whether they are assembled traditionally or using modern methods. Both BRE and the Housing Forum are hoping that the new system will establish a level playing field for all construction types and provide enough information to turn around suspicion and ignorance among both mortgage lenders and planners.

Further afield the Forum works with the World Wildlife Fund and Bioregional, the firm that developed BedZed. The team’s initiative, One Planet Living, will appear in the Thames Gateway with the proposed Z-squared development. They are also investigating how to retro-fit sustainability with more sophisticated CHP heating and waste processing. The study has parallels with the government’s Decent Homes Agenda and could see MMC and sustainability coming together.

The most significant new resource in the next couple of years could be a new way of judging the best housebuilders in terms of sustainability, MMC and customer satisfaction. This is one of the key points Kate Barker made in her Treasury-sponsored Review early this year. The Housing Forum met with the Housebuilders’ Federation, the NHBC and other sector stakeholders in December 2004 to explore a future customer satisfaction survey of private housebuilders, building on the work already done by MORI for the Housing Forum.

The Forum is also publishing a report with Design for Homes and the Building Centre Trust on the case studies resulting from the Pre-Fabulous Homes seminars which have been running since 2002. This will provide information on the exemplar firms to take the ODPM’s Communities Plan and Decent Homes campaign forward.

“The trouble with sustainability and all these issues is that you need someone to stick their neck out,” says Harrison. “A lot of people criticise BedZed as being too expensive, but it is an exemplar. What the critics don’t mention is that although the Peabody Trust had to shoulder the costs, the industry as a whole experiences the benefit of the R&D financed by Peabody.”

This is what the Housing Forum is all about. The point, Harrison repeats, is to draw all the leaders of the different strands of a disparate industry together. John Prescott, for one, will be hoping that it succeeds.

Excellence in action: BedZed

A major barrier to the government’s housebuilding plans is space. At the end of the last decade the DETR estimated that nearly four million additional homes would have to be built by 2016 to accommodate the growing population. This covers an area of land larger than the capital if construction were to take place at current density levels. BedZed is one of CE’s most celebrated demonstration projects.

Opened in 2001, it shows ways of maximising density, such as roofs of workspace units being used as gardens for neighbouring housing. In traditional development, these would be used simply as balconies, meaning more space would be required for garden features. The layout means that there are a total of 187 residents per hectare.

It is also an example of sustainable developmen: it counts the RIBA’s ‘best example of sustainable construction’ among its many awards. The use of superinsulated brick and block construction reduces energy loads to 10% of those required by current new-build standards. The whole development is also CO2 neutral. The benefits, which also include controlling solar gain, mean that £500-a-year is saved in the typical resident’s energy bill.

As Susan Viner, project architect of BedZed’s designer Bill Dunster Architects, told Building magazine: “We have tapped into the general feeling of people who want to play their part in saving the planet. Volume housebuilders are so far behind the public mood.”

Key facts

Client Peabody Trust
Architect Bill Dunster Architects
Construction manager & QS Gardiner & Theobald is
Structural engineer Ellis & Moore
Services engineer Arup
Sustainability consultant Bioregional Development Group
Location Beddington, Sutton, Surrey
Cost £11m