Has Covid accelerated modular building?

Before COVID-19, the interest in modern methods of construction (MMC), and specifically modular, was growing – albeit slowly. However, lockdown and all the subsequent restrictions put in place – along with the government’s ‘Build Build Build’ and ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ pledges – have seen greater emphasis placed on its utilisation as developers and housebuilders look for innovative solutions to deliver much-needed housing quickly.

Wayne Oakes, director at multi-disciplinary engineering consultancy Dice, is at the forefront of the industry.

He said: “The benefits of modular construction are no secret – increased safety on site and schedule certainty as well as less material waste and fewer delays. But despite many within the industry calling for greater use, modular take up has remained slow and only accounts for a very small percentage of housing delivery at the moment.

“The proportion of new homes built using MMC is predicted to increase from the current 6-10% to 20% of the market share in the next years, according to the recent report from Savills. However, in order to meet not only the UK’s housing delivery target but also the aim of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 – this has to increase.

“As an industry, we’ve been talking about MMC for many years but it still only accounts for a fairly small percentage of total housing delivery in this county, with traditional housebuilding by far the primary build method in the UK. But the last few months have forced the wider industry to start thinking differently and about how they can innovate, adapt and ultimately build more homes in the face of the restrictions we all face as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Breaking the stigma

“The industry has been slow to accept MMC; it is largely misunderstood. There is also a stigma around modular and a general reluctance to change as people are used to working in the traditional way – there is a perception that the product is low quality and has no integrity of design, but that simply isn’t the case now. There is a real lack of knowledge within the sector about modular and this reluctance to learn is stunting innovation and growth in the residential sector – and ultimately preventing us from building more homes more quickly.

Unlocking affordable housing schemes

“The pandemic has started to change this as developers and landowners are starting to consider how to move forwards. For instance, we have started to see local authorities look towards modular building as a way to unlock residential sites to deliver affordable housing.

“One such project that we’re currently working on is with Bassetlaw District Council. The modular housing scheme is the first MMC project for the authority and will deliver 120 homes in Nottinghamshire.

“Working closely with Faithful+Gould – the project/commercial manager and principal designer for the scheme – this project marks our tenth modular scheme. We are responsible for looking at the flood risk, drainage, transport, and structural design as well as providing specialist MMC advice.”

Faithful+Gould was appointed to the scheme via direct award through Lot 1 of the Pagabo Professional Services Framework and selected a local design team of Nottingham SME’s, including Dice, to work on the project.

Andrew Prickett, director and head of residential at Faithful+Gould, said: “The modular approach will help us deliver the Radford Street development quicker, more cost effectively, and crucially, at a consistent and high quality. By combining Faithful+Gould’s knowledge of the modular housing sector with our exceptional approach to delivery, we can help the Council deliver on its vision, and the UK reach its target of 300,000 new homes each year.”

Cllr Steve Scotthorne, Cabinet Member for Housing at Bassetlaw District Council, said: “Even before the Coronavirus pandemic hit, we recognised the benefits of modular housing and we are delighted to be working with Faithful+Gould and Dice to deliver a brand-new development.

“Over the last 10 years we have a strong track record of building modern, energy efficient and impressive council housing in Bassetlaw and we’ve never been afraid to embrace advancements in construction methods.

“The site in Worksop lends itself perfectly to use MMC and we are looking forward to seeing work on the development start very soon.”

Delivering high quality homes

Wayne added: “It’s clear that more and more decision makers are waking up to the fact that modular housing is an incredibly viable option for a post pandemic recovery. But we still need to go further.

“Schemes such as the one with Bassetlaw District Council help deliver modern, innovative and energy efficient housing schemes that improve neighbourhoods, support local jobs as well as the council’s ambition to increase the amount of housing.

“However, we need it on a wider scale to really make a dent in the 300,000 new homes target set by the government. The scale of our work has definitely increased – from roughly 10 units on a development to almost 700 on our most recent scheme – so I just hope we continue to see action rather than all the talk of pre-COVID times.”