Opinion

We don't need to rewrite the rule book to speed up housing delivery

Zoe Metcalfe

Can it be true? After decades of depressing news about the lack of new housing, there is optimism in the air - the time is right for speeding up housing delivery, say Jillian Hardie and Zoe Metcalfe of Arup.

Recent government strategies and initiatives to tackle the UK housing crisis look promising, with, plans launched by bodies, such as Homes England, full of new ideas to drive productivity, unlock land and boost the volume of much-needed affordable homes. 

At the heart of the discussion is modern methods of construction (MMC) – a central element of the government’s current strategy. So, can it work? What are the strengths, barriers to execution and ways to solve conflicts?

1. Key strengths – the potential is clear

Widely acknowledged as the outstanding advantage of MMC, is the potential for high-speed, high-volume production of high quality, energy efficient homes. 

Advances in technology are enabling the integration of supply chain and assembly operations on a single digital platform, speeding up processes. Linked to a more streamlined planning system, design details agreed in advance could allow applications to be determined in days not months. 

MMC could also enable us to rethink traditional home ownership patterns, providing homes that can be modified and adapt to suit changes in occupants’ lifestyle, minimising waste and keeping communities together.

2. Barriers to execution 

  • Perception and conservatism 

Associations with the sub-standard prefabricated homes which sprang up in the post-war period have been slow to shift and represent an element of conservatism acting as a block to acceptance in the country’s collective consciousness.

A concerted effort could be made by relevant policymakers and MMC industry professionals to spread the word and further promote an openness to change. Part of this target audience are home owners and occupiers who will buy in to MMC when seen as one component of a well-designed and well-served community. 

  • Technical and practical collaboration

There is a need to better combine areas of technical expertise and align traditional building design with the manufacturing process. It is imperative that timeframes associated with building regulations approvals are understood and align with business plans.

Lack of alignment frequently plagues housing reform and is a real issue for policymakers and the industry to address. Working on mechanisms for various bodies involved in housing to come together and find better ways of working collaboratively will be central to progress.

  • Finance and investment

A key issue is the school of thought that categorises homes purely as ‘products’. A car will cost the same regardless of where it is bought, however, the same cannot be said for a house. Those able to invest in the entire development including the site and infrastructure in which homes are situated will be best placed to make an impact on the success of the uptake and the affordability of housing stock. 

  • Policy and changing values

Finally, government policy could be used to shift behaviour to facilitate more MMC. We don’t need a radical overhaul of policy direction and goals, but a gearshift is required so that MMC can better operate alongside traditional construction methods.

3. Solving the conflicts 

  • Perception and conservatism – flagship developments 

Change is in the air, but more work is required to tell the story of MMC as key to building much-needed homes that are well designed, well-built and efficient to operate and maintain. To truly shift perceptions, the industry needs more successful flagship developments using the latest MMC.

  • Technical and practical collaboration – new model factory 

We need to take the best from traditional design and combines it with the huge potential offered by offsite manufacture. The new model factory can be an exemplar of collaboration through the whole development lifecycle from concept to completion.

  • Finance and investment – a move away from traditional finance models 

Traditional house building finance models where a significant benefit is gained from land value do not necessarily work with standard MMC delivery models. A need to invest in the end-to-end delivery of a community and flexibility in traditional lending mechanisms will be required. 

  • Policy and changing values – more collaboration 

Government, the construction industry and developers should all work together to smooth the path for MMC. This doesn’t require rewriting the rule book, but subtle changes could certainly help dissolve some of the barriers and to allow us to accelerate delivery to a level that will go a long way to address the housing crisis.   

Finally, in answer to the question posed at the start of this article - yes, it can be true!

Zoe Metcalfe is the director of consulting for the west of England, Wales and NI, at Arup and Jillian Hardie is the buildings director for Scotland and north east, at Arup.