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Why the Three Little Pigs thwart a solution to the housing crisis

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Commentary on a select committee hearing on modern methods of construction.

Modern methods of construction (MMC) – in particular housing which is assembled off site in factories – is being held up as the magic wand that could wave away our chronic housing shortage.

According to the government’s industrial strategy, MMC has the potential to reform the residential construction sector to meet its target of 300,000 new homes being built each year, and a million in all between 2017 and 2020.

Almost all the major housebuilders are now embracing some form of MMC. Barratt Developments now has 80 sites building with MMC while Weston Homes and Countryside Properties have just opened house-building factories in Essex and Warrington respectively.

And in the none too distant future, we could even see UK houses being made using 3D printing, as is being piloted with several projects internationally.

But at the moment, the high hopes invested in MMC are not yet being realised on the scale anticipated by its champions.

The government has identified inconsistent demand in the housing sector in embracing MMC.

Some mortgage lenders are still nervous about using new technology that hasn’t yet proven its worth, and investors are wary about the large upfront cost involved at the start of an off-site building project.

Perhaps some people are put off by their tainted memories of prefab housing from the post-war period, although their modern contemporaries are certainly better constructed and easier on the eye than those houses, few of which have survived until today.

At a housing, communities and local government select committee on Monday on the topic of MMC, Local Government Association chairman Lord Porter (Con), used the analogy of the children’s fairytale The Three Little Pigs to explain why he thinks the public have engrained reservations about MMC.

“Everyone knows that the only house strong enough to keep the wolf out was made of masonry,” the former builder turned politician said. He believes MMC is essential if the government is to reach its target of 300,000 new homes a year,

“MMC got a bad name because of historical problems. “It has to become an aspirational product, and the only way you can do that is if the state steps in and buys lots of MMC housing. Councils will be the biggest buyers – you could be looking at 80,000 units a year. Once people can push it, prod it and poke it themselves, the private buyers will have an interest too.”

Given that the techniques being used are still so new, legislation hasn’t yet caught up to the challenge, and several calls were made at the committee hearing for building regulations to be put in place to cover the new construction methods, with Steven Boyes, deputy chief executive of Barratt Developments, calling for more clarity in terms of fire safety regulations.

Modular construction has been touted as a quick fix to London’s homeless crisis, because modular homes can be assembled quicker and more efficiently than using traditional techniques.

Lewisham LBC has a housing shortages with approaching 2,000 families in temporary accommodation. Thirty-four modular homes are being built there in a seven-storey timber-framed homes in Deptford as a temporary measure, the idea being to dismantle and move them on to a new location in the future. Indeed, the council has previously won an LGC award for similar work.

Lord Porter has his reservations about using MMC as a stopgap measure. “I don’t understand why we should want to put something up and then take it down again – the housing crisis won’t be solved in the next five to 10 years,” he said. “It would not seem to be cost effective.”

New ideas for housing will be discussed at LGC’s Future Places conference in May. For full details click here.

Concerns were raised during a workshop on modular construction methods at a London Councils’ housing conference earlier this month that using modular construction for temporary housing, with the aim of moving it on at a later date, would involve refitting the interiors after the structures have been moved, thereby adding to the costs involved. There were also concerns about the potential social impact. One council leader remarked: “This sort of temporary housing doesn’t create communities, it’s just about getting people off the [housing] lists. And what starts off as temporary ends up permanent.”

But there are also many positive aspects of MMC housing that should be celebrated.

Swan Housing Group, which has a house-building factory in Basildon and plans in the pipeline to build another, claims its homes are constructed much faster than using conventional methods, with less time required at the end of the process to fix defects, and the homes can be recycled at the end of their lives.

One chief executive of a major housebuilding firm revealed that the primary reason his firm was embracing MMC was Britain’s declining construction workforce, with the sector’s skills shortage anticipated to worsen after Brexit. “People don’t want to be outside in the bitter cold when it’s raining, but if you are assembling a house in a factory, it’s more appealing because you’re indoors,” he explained.

Many of the skills required by workers in the new house-building factories are lower skilled, which is advantageous in some respects as it means new staff can be trained up more quickly, and those with manufacturing backgrounds can be considered for these new types of construction jobs.

But the difficulty, according to Lord Porter, could be how to keep those workers engaged in the arguably more mundane jobs that they’re doing.

Trina Chakravarti is project director for the Building Better programme at the National Housing Federation, which aims to find solutions to the challenges facing housing associations in building homes. She spoke at the committee hearing about how she believes MMC will take a year or two to get off the ground for the social housing sector, and after that, she believes the trend will catch on. “But a dash for large numbers in the past went wrong – quality is paramount,” she cautioned. “I think you have to have modest targets in the short term and see how it goes, then you can ramp up production.”

She claims that although the enthusiasm is there, the biggest barrier to housing associations taking up MMC is that it’s not possible to be able to see its cost effectiveness at this point.

Alun Macey, head of construction for Pocket Living, claims that the fact building companies only get paid after completion of the models was its “market failure”. “If we have 10 units in development, it’s not cost effective [to use MMC] - we need to have a lot of units being built at the same time to be able to recover the costs,” he said.

Lord Porter would like the government to find a new way to give people the confidence to invest in MMC. 

“If it’s not cost effective, compared to traditional building methods that have been around for 200 years, then why would anyone bother?” he asked.

Jessica Hill, senior reporter

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