The future importance of off-site modular construction
Ian Atkinson and Ryan Lavers, partner and solicitor at law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, share their views on housing and modern methods of construction (MMC) post COVID-19.
“The construction sector is fundamentally important to the UK economy. Often cited as the barometer of economic conditions, it contributes around £90 billion and provides approximately 10% of total UK employment.
In recent months, the sector has found itself subject to a somewhat surprising level of media scrutiny. Initially, there was a focus on the construction of new hospitals, vaccine centres and other structures dedicated to fighting the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was then questioned whether construction sites could operate in compliance with the social distancing regulations, with different views taken in England and Scotland providing political debate.
Now the concern is how we can future-proof our infrastructure to allow people to return to work. It therefore seems like an appropriate time to consider the future of the sector and in particular the role of "Modern Methods of Construction" (MMCs) following the pandemic.
The recent completion of several Nightingale hospitals across the UK has shown how off-site modular construction can produce remarkable outcomes. Images on social media went viral as we watched the extraordinary conversion of the ExCel Exhibition Centre in London to a 4,000-bed hospital spanning 20 acres in just nine days, assisted greatly by the mass manufacture of component systems in a factory off-site which were assembled on-site to create uniform patient bays as quickly as possible.
It would be naive to declare that the Covid-19 pandemic will in itself change the construction sector forever, but it has given a glimpse of what it possible when financial barriers are removed and new technologies are allowed to flourish.
With construction sites across the UK interrupted by temporary closures and re-opening subject to on-site social distancing regulations, it is inevitable that clients will consider new approaches in an attempt to mitigate those delays and the impact of any future interruptions.
This could mean the acceleration and widespread adoption of MMCs in a number of other sectors, and that investment could supercharge the modernisation of the housebuilding sector. One possible early example of this has been on Wigan Pierside, where eight eco-friendly homes were recently installed within three days of leaving the off-site factory where they were constructed.
You might ask how else could MMCs change working practices? One positive economic side-effect of the Covid-19 pandemic has been a decrease in the amount of greenhouse gases and other pollutants that have been created due to reduced levels of industrial activity.
The level of press attention this has garnered could mean an increased focus on companies to reduce their carbon footprints. Modular construction provides both an easy solution to reduce the levels of on-site pollution and material waste and also a better controlled environment in which social distancing can be monitored.
Critics may argue this is offset by the additional transport required to move modular units from their off-site factories to the construction site itself, but MMC does not always have to mean the production of volumetric units. Slick manufacturing processes could provide panels which are later assembled on-site, much like when I first saw a Huf Haus turn up on two lorries in my favourite episode of Grand Designs…
The use of modular construction also allows for much greater uniformity (and therefore quality) in the final product of a construction project which is of particular importance in housing projects where tens or hundreds of houses need to be built with a large degree of similarity.
As panels only fit together one way, the temptations on-site for construction workers to quickly complete the last few houses on a project before a deadline or the arrival of a weekend no longer exist, meaning that the purchasers or tenants of the property benefit from a more consistently high quality of product.
However, project managers should also be aware that this uniformity could work against them if an error is made at the off-site factory itself, as any mistakes here would then be replicated across all parts of a modular batch.
The current situation with Covid-19 is unprecedented and is providing significant challenges for a number of sectors, but with key developments in the construction and housebuilding sectors, these challenges can be met with something positive.
MMCs may provide a neat solution to the speedy delivery of high quality first-time, and affordable, housing, meeting pent-up demand whilst addressing ongoing environmental concerns.”
217,000 extra workers needed to meet COVID-19 recovery
As the construction industry’s recovery progresses, the Construction Industry Training Board’s (CITB) Construction Skills Network (CSN) forecasts have led the organisation to believe the industry will reach 2019 levels of output in 2022.
The CSN says there will be an increase in the number of construction workers in “most English regions” by 2025, with demands forecasted at a 1.7% rise for the East Midlands, and a 1.4% rise for the West Midlands.
Scotland and Wales are also predicted to see a surge in demand for construction workers with a total increase of 1.4% and 0.7% respectively. The North East is the only region to see a slight decline in workforce demand at -0.1%.
Wood and interior fit-out trades among the most desirable during COVID-19
According to CSN’s forecast, the trades that are the most wanted are those of wood and interior fit-outs, with both requiring around 5,500 workers per year. Other in-demand trades include technical staff and other construction professionals, requiring 5,150 workers each year, construction managers at 3,600, and the electrical installation trade, which requires 3,400 staff per year.
There is also expected to be demand for 7,850 non-construction, office-based professionals and technical and IT support staff each year. Steve Radley, Policy Director at CITB, said: “It’s great to see construction coming back so strongly and creating lots of job opportunities.
“We need to adopt new approaches to meet these growing skills needs and deliver these quickly. We are working closely with the government and FE to build better bridges between FE and work and make apprenticeships more flexible. We are also making significant investments in supporting work experience that make it easier for employers to bring in new blood.
“We must also make sure that we invest in the skills that will drive change and meet new and growing needs such as Net Zero emissions and Building Safety. We will be announcing plans soon to tackle specific skills and occupations such as leadership and management, digital skills, and skills related to energy efficiency”, he said.