The case for modern methods of construction (MMC) has long been described in the most polarised terms.
In 2015, the government asked the Construction Leadership Council (a semi-independent body it co-chairs) to identify ways to reduce the building sector’s vulnerability to skills shortages. The report that emerged a year later, post-Brexit vote, was penned by consultant Mark Farmer and came with a stark title: ‘Modernise or Die’.
The Farmer Review was not quite the ultimatum the title suggested. In his foreword, Farmer observed that creating “a vibrant, re-skilled, fully integrated, more predictable and productive industry” meant finding ways for both traditional and new approaches to “co-exist and complement each other, driving much wider longer-term benefits”.
That subtlety was easily lost, in part because of the attention-grabbing title. But over the years since Farmer’s report landed, I’ve often heard traditional and modern methods compared in disparaging ways, from suggestions that older methods have barely changed since the pyramids, to the notion that MMC inherently delivers superior quality.
Neither is remotely true. On-site construction is perfectly capable of delivering brilliant buildings at the bleeding edge of what’s possible, and a factory using the latest modern methods can quite readily turn out total dross.
As with all things, outcomes depend on quality of execution more than the method. MMC won’t improve matters if the factory is plagued by bad planning, poor design, faulty materials, poor quality control or badly trained and inattentive workers. Traditional methods are equally vulnerable to these failings.
When done right, MMC may well unlock the potential to deliver outstanding quality and superior predictability, but these benefits require hard work and are by no means a given.
The difficulties with modern methods have been brought into the spotlight over the past couple of years. In May 2022, Urban Splash’s joint venture with Japanese modular giant Sekisui House and Homes England collapsed, a result of mounting losses blamed on design issues, quality problems and under-use of its factory.
In May this year, L&G stopped making modular homes, shut its factory, laid off workers and subsequently had to dismantle some modular homes to fix faults. And a month later, modular specialist ilke Homes went into administration, leaving debts of £320m.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the phrase ‘modernise and die’ might be more appropriate, given these failures.
In October, the House of Lords Built Environment Committee launched an inquiry entitled ‘Modern methods of construction – what’s gone wrong?’ and has begun hearing evidence. I suspect it will find that a wide variety of different things went wrong, including many challenges that are nothing to do with MMC, such as sudden unexpected rises in the costs of both materials and debt.
This week, we cover two surviving MMC backers – Tide, which has successfully applied volumetric MMC to high-rise buildings, and Barratt, which is backing a panellised approach to off-site housebuilding.
Both stories could go under the heading of ‘Modernise and you can prosper as long as you put your mind to it’.
I admit that’s not a very catchy title, but I do think it’s a better way of capturing what modern methods mean.