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Dan Smith explores the areas where modular buildings can really make a difference

The construction industry needs to shift to modular methods. It’s a message government has delivered clearly in recent years.

Mark Farmer’s ‘Modernise or die’ report highlighted modular as pretty much the only way to deliver the numbers of new homes the UK needs. There is a similar message in the Future Homes report.

More recently, Dame Judith Hackitt pointed to modularised and factory-based construction as the future for the industry. 

Writing for Building magazine in February 2020, Mark Farmer stated: “Adopting modern methods of construction will allow the industry to hit vital targets on decarbonisation, building safety and better design.”

The Council found that modular took 30% less time and 20% less cost than traditional methods

Dan Headshot BW Dan Smith Corporate Business Development Executive

Slow progress

We are making progress, but it’s slow. 

One of the current challenges we face is that modular construction needs to provide more capacity; but it won’t be able to do that until demand grows sufficiently to support investment in the specialist facilities.

We have to build our modular muscles to promote faster growth in these methods. 

Some sectors in the UK are already adopting modular techniques. There are influential ‘push’ factors at play here – increasingly scarce on-site skills; and the need to meet demand quickly are two of the most compelling.

Modular construction has some big ‘pull’ factors too. Better quality is one.

Factory-built construction is easier to get right because quality control is more straightforward in a controlled environment.

Better profit margins is also a critical benefit for those who can invest in modular build facilities.

Modular homes

Housing is a prime sector that may offer a boost to the UK’s modular capabilities. With demand for housing now high on the political agenda, it seems the only way to meet government targets for homes is to take the modular approach.

Housing is also an ideal subject for modular methods – it requires repeatable designs at scale: Just what offsite construction delivers best.

Several modular housing projects are underway or about to start. For example, Lewisham Council is working with Caledonian Modular on a £27 million project to deliver 112 homes under its ‘Precision Manufactured Housing’ initiative.

The Council trialled the modular approach and found that it took 30% less time to and 20% less cost than traditional methods. The Council is planning to continue using PMH for up to 1,000 homes. Greenwich Council has also announced a £300 million investment in a modular homes project with the first 750 being delivered by Ideal Modular Homes.

Also Legal & General Modular Homes is working on a project in Selby, North Yorkshire. It will build over 150 homes at its specialist factory, and there are plans for another modular development near Bristol. 

Modular hotel building

Hotels are another sector that has spotted the benefits of modular construction.

In a market where time is money, modular construction provides rapid builds and less time on site. Hotels can open their doors and start trading sooner.

Modules for hotel projects are delivered to site where foundations are waiting.

Once these are in place, bathrooms and other services are often delivered as ‘pods’ with only water and electricity to be connected.

Property specialist JLL reports that more sophisticated modular techniques are helping to make this approach more attractive for hotel brands. Modular builders are now “providing different colours, sizes or looks. That variety of choice makes it more inviting for hotels that aim to provide localised, individual experiences.”

A modular education

A third sector shifting to modular methods is education.

In January 2020, the Department for Education (DfE) announced a £3 billion offsite schools framework.

Government has budgeted to deliver the schools based on the lower costs of what it terms ‘modern methods of construction’ (MMC) which includes offsite methods.

The DfE supports this approach to design and construction as it can ensure that buildings comply with its extensive regulations. Prefabrication offsite ensures that buildings are far less likely to move away from these requirements. Offsite manufacture of these buildings can make them much more straightforward in terms of numbers of components – and faster to assemble on site.

As construction faces the issues of Brexit and COVID-19 working practices, it’s clear that profound changes are needed if we are to move into a successful future. As Mark Farmer wrote in February: “The opportunity is here to think big and deliver radical but positive change.”

Dan Smith is Corporate Business Development Executive