The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee (MHCLG) recently launched an inquiry into modern methods of construction (MMC) and how they can help to deliver new housing. MMC has risen on the agenda recently – this follows a commitment made by the government in 2017 to adopt measures to favour offsite construction across five central government departments. Homes England has also committed to support MMC in its recently published five-year strategic plan and senior ministers at MHCLG have been making a concerted effort this year to push the sector towards more of a focus on innovation in housebuilding.
The increased political attention is hardly surprising. The housebuilding figures released for last year showed a very modest increase in the number of homes being delivered annually to 222,000. This is well short of the 300,000 per year target. Housebuilding in this country hasn’t reached that level since the 1970s and warnings that the construction sector faces worker shortages in the coming decades as its ageing workforce begins to retire, with too few recruits to replace them, are not encouraging.
That’s not to mention the issues of quality with much of the new housing being delivered by volume housebuilders. Research undertaken by the RIBA found that 75% of people would not buy a property built in the last ten years. This is a shocking indication of public attitudes towards new homes and an indication that design quality is of secondary importance in the current system.
The government has also set itself ambitious targets in its Construction 2025 strategy for 50% faster delivery, 50% lower greenhouse gas emissions and and 33% lower costs in construction. While the focus on improving sustainability in the construction sector is absolutely right - the built environment is responsible for nearly a third of carbon emissions in the UK - meeting these targets will require a step change in the way the sector operates.
It’s easy to see why the government is increasingly looking at MMC as a potential solution. Offsite manufacture has the potential to speed up delivery, reduce cost, improve quality of delivery and reduce waste and emissions from construction. It can also provide an answer to workforce shortages, reducing the need for skilled on-site labour and opening up opportunities to train people in new skills.
However, MMC are not a fix for the underlying issues with the broken housing market. Take design quality. Until you genuinely prioritise design in development, you will not get improved outcomes and the confidence crisis in new homes will continue. This means favouring proposals that successfully balance the need for numbers with the wider benefits of delivering sustainable development, as opposed to those that can squeeze the most units on the smallest amount of land and achieve the biggest returns. MMC cannot solve this problem. It requires a culture change in the housing market in how we value development and a better evaluation of the outcomes we are seeking to achieve.
Offsite construction already has a bad reputation with the public that will need to be overcome due to a legacy of poorly designed post-war modular schemes that were conceived as a way of cheaply building at scale rather than delivering better quality development. We are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past if there is not a culture change in our approach.
For the RIBA, increasing the use of MMC has the potential to address many of the big issues currently facing the construction sector. Our response to this inquiry, submitted last week, made a number of recommendations on how MMC can encourage innovation and improve development outcomes. For a start, a manufactured approach can give designers more control to ensure that what they design is actually delivered, without quality being stripped back after a planning application has been approved to save costs.
However, we will not be able to exploit the benefits that can be achieved until we create the conditions in the housing market that facilitate good development. The RIBA published its own view of what this would look like in a recent report on quality in placemaking. The government needs to lead on this by changing its own practice to genuinely value the wider benefits that development can bring. Until this happens there will continue to be limited progress made in increasing the use of MMC or improving design quality.
We also recommend that the government work with the RIBA to develop the skills in the sector and improve the understanding of the potential benefits that MMC can deliver. If done in the right way, architects are well placed to take a central role in embedding MMC into the design process. They can be the bridge between developers and suppliers and are well positioned to engage communities and improve public understanding of the benefits they can bring.