Thursday 20 September 2018 8:21 am

Housing construction is stuck in the dark ages – time to embrace modern methods


Imagine if there were an off-the-shelf solution to London’s housing shortage.

Well, imagination could become reality: the nine-metre-high structure built from cross-laminated timber on show during the London Design Festival this week highlights that the technology is there.

But this impressive prototype design is far from the UK’s traditional approach to building homes.

Read more: UK house price growth sinks to five-year low

While other countries are adopting more modern trends, the UK is still heavily reliant on labour-intensive methods and bricklaying – the same techniques we’ve been using for centuries.

There are signs of change.

A few high-profile schemes have captured the industry’s attention in the capital – Pocket Living’s Mapleton Crescent modular tower in Wandsworth, for example – showing the advantages of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) in terms of speed, quality, cost and sustainability.

But in practice, the take-up across London remains very low. Why?

First, the sector is still in an early phase of the innovation cycle. Many manufacturers and technologies are vying for market position. Among modular schemes in London, a wide range of construction methods have been adopted, from cross-laminated timber to light steel frames.

Like all new industries, the sector needs volume and continuity of demand in order to become more established and realise efficiencies, but this is proving challenging.

The reality is that the wide variety of products and the relatively small number of clients is making it hard for manufacturers to scale.

In addition, the novelty and variety of MMC schemes mean that warranties, insurance, development finance, and mortgages can be hard to secure, compounded by a lack of guidance and standardisation.

These new methods also have high upfront costs. This can put off housing associations, boroughs and local housing companies, and build-to-rent investors – even though they are the ones who would benefit from the speed of modular construction approaches.

Low take-up is further compounded by a lack of customer demand.

The “prefabricated” homes built after World War II have left a lingering impression that these buildings are unattractive, poor-quality, and disposable. This is despite the fact that in other countries (Germany and Sweden for example), MMC homes are now associated with high quality and bespoke design.

In order for MMC to play its role in tackling the housing crisis, housing providers will need to significantly scale up their adoption. This is crucial to improve the quality and speed of housing delivery, but also to future-proof it in the face of impending construction workforce challenges, which both the government and the industry need to anticipate.

If we can show that MMC would offer perceivable benefits to consumers (in terms of cost, appearance, environmental credentials, and acoustics), there might also be stronger consumer demand for these homes, which would likely represent a turning point in impacting housebuilders’ decision-making.

So, with weekly headlines about the housing crisis, and a generation for whom home-ownership seems a distant dream, it’s time for the industry, politicians, mortgage providers, investors, and consumers to get serious about adopting these game-changing techniques.

Read more: Cowardice over the housing crisis is pushing young Brits towards socialism