What’s holding modular housing back?

24 Apr 19 | Isobel McGeever

Recently, one modular provider confirmed their target for contingency for their element was 0%, and post construction snagging was 1%. This is quality that is difficult to achieve with 100% on-site construction.

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The UK seems, on the face of it, to be behind the curve on the topic of Modern Methods of Construction – a term which encompasses a number of approaches involving off-site manufacture or assembly, and ‘factory-built’ products and buildings. These modern methods have the ability to completely reform the construction industry through increasing not only the speed of delivery, but also the quality of the products we’re able to bring to the market.

The build quality of new homes is a major aspect of ensuring we not only provide a sufficient quantity of homes every year, but also provide a sufficient quality of homes people want and are keen to invest in. The much-discussed dwindling labour pool of construction workers in the UK means construction teams are ever more stretched and pressed to deliver traditionally constructed homes.

As with any technology, transferring the manufacturing of a product into a factory allows for precision engineering and a quality which cannot be provided in an external environment whilst battling with the elements. However, there is still some scepticism regarding utilising modern methods of construction over traditional construction. Recently, one modular provider confirmed their target for contingency for their element was 0%, and post construction snagging was 1%. This is quality that is difficult to achieve with 100% on-site construction.

Although modern methods allow for a significantly shorter build time, and a higher finished quality, the most widely-known example of off-site construction in the UK is the post-war pre-fabs, which clearly don’t have a good reputation.

Personally, the key issue off-site construction faces in taking over the market from traditional construction is the mantra of if it ain’t broke why fix it? surrounding traditional construction methods. Modular housing also suffers from the challenge of being able to supply at both volume and speed, with the number of factories / supply lines a potentially limiting factor.  

In addition to this, the planning system is going to need to adapt to make way for this new method of delivery; clean planning permissions which enable developments to commence immediately and instead place the focus on pre-occupation conditions will be paramount to this. Furthermore, Councils should seek to take a favourable approach to considering scheme amendments, both non-material and minor material, when such amendments are facilitating the speedier delivery and other associated benefits of modular construction.

It is no coincidence that modular is taking particular hold in rental housing, which is unconstrained by a (usually necessary) focus on sales rates and instead a focus on quick occupation. Only time will be able to prove to prospective purchasers whether modular-built buildings can remain not only in place, but also maintain a high-quality finish for years to come. In the meantime, maybe the planning system should incentivise modular construction by rewarding schemes that deliver quickly, as well as upping the pace for decision-making to keep up with fast-paced construction?

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