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How London can help modular stack up across the UK

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The London Assembly’s recent report ‘Designed, Sealed, Delivered: the contribution of offsite manufactured homes to solving London’s housing crisis’ could mark a turning point for the industry.

Mark Farmer

The most powerful regional government in England, headed by the most powerful non-parliamentary politician in the country, is on the cusp of leading the charge for high-quality ‘precision-manufactured’ housing.

As my recent review ‘Modernise or Die’ highlighted, the construction industry needs some strategic politically-led initiators to help it reform itself. This report, alongside the housing white paper and HCA work to implement central government policy, clearly falls into this category.

The report’s recommendations set out a practical implementation strategy to support offsite construction, which will help deliver more homes more quickly and at a consistently high quality. This strategy, if given the mayor’s backing, will help build the long‑term confidence and certainty of demand offsite construction needs.

If our industry can make it work at scale in the capital, we can drive a nationwide rolling out of premanufacturing production capacity.

To benefit from the full potential of scaled‑up modular construction, the mayor must bring together the best expertise from the worlds of design, manufacturing and development to create a ‘manufacturing housing design code’.

By setting design standards and protocols, the mayor can tackle head-on the current ‘cottage industry’ problem of a lack of scale in the offsite sector. There are too many unique and diverse systems that are not inter-operable.

Unified approach

A more unified ‘open source’ approach would create a bigger total market. Standards should be technology agnostic and cover spatial and internal fit-out parameters, insurability and fundability of modular homes to help build consumer trust. It is time to capitalise on the fact that traditional housebuilding quality is under the microscope more than ever and offsite is no longer the poor relation.

Fundamentally, compliance with the design guide alongside formal process assurance should be linked to a single ‘kitemark’ for homes built using modular methods. This can then be backed by valuers, funders and regulatory bodies. This aligns to central government thinking and the GLA, HCA and DCLG can and should jointly develop this initiative and stand behind it.

Modular housing

The offsite manufacturing procurement framework recommended in the London Assembly report will require joined-up thinking to improve both public and private procurement practices. The Grenfell tragedy shows that better outcomes rather than lowest cost must surely be the way forward. At a time of shrinking margins, loss of delivery control and rising cost inflation, a transparent and value-led open procurement framework, founded on more efficient and effective organisational models and adjudicated by an independent panel, can create a more sustainable industry for all stakeholders.

The mayor’s influence over land and planning in London can also help further stimulate modular construction. Bringing forward these sites for development should aid the formation of working partnerships between public bodies, developers and premanufacture-led supply chains.

Policy alone cannot change our industry. A combination of push-and-pull forces from clients, regional and central government and industry itself lies at the heart of how we will modernise.

This report is a key contributor to that process and I hope the mayor endorses it.

Mark Farmer is CEO at Cast Consultancy

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