Modern Methods of Construction, MMC. People looking at plans.

Modern Methods of Construction (MMC)

Modular Musings…

Last month I joined London Constructing Excellence Club for a talk titled “MMC: Solution or Hype?”. Professor Stuart Green questioned whether the praise levelled at Modern Methods of Construction as the solution to all construction’s problems is justified. And when it comes to encouraging companies to adopt MMC, I tend to agree. We should be leading with clear benefits, not vague, fix-all promises.

However, in my personal experience, MMC can be, and often is, a positive alternative to traditional construction.  I have been working with one of my long-standing clients on volumetric building for over ten years. Having covered over £1.8bn of development value in London, I think I can speak freely on volumetric building.

What is Volumetric Construction?

Sometimes known as ‘prefabricated building’, volumetric construction is the process of manufacturing the components, or modules, of a building off-site. They are then connected together at the required location to form a completed building.

When I have to explain these methods to clients, I try to keep it simple.  I usually explain that it is traditional construction but built off-site. The system I am most familiar with uses common materials you would use to build in a traditional manner, such as steel and concrete. Once a module is complete, it is delivered to site and installed. Other modules are then connected in some way (not just bolted!).

This video of a hotel project being put together on-site is a perfect example.

What are the Barriers?

One major worry we often come across is the connection of the modules. In particular, issues surrounding fire barriers/fire stopping and the attendant insurance risk can put clients off. I have heard the phrase ‘zip-up works’ used to represent the final connecting works.

In my experience, a great amount of time is spent on working through the design. A large part of that is working out how modules will be connected to ensure regulatory compliance.

Another common barrier is a logistical one. As the modules are produced offsite, they need to be transported and delivered to the site. Whilst the speed at which this can happen is usually positive, unforeseen delays at this point (such as the site not being ready or having appropriate access) can cause major problems.

Transport costs can also be a factor to consider. The further the site from the factory, the more it will cost to have the modules delivered to the site. Similarly, specialist vehicles are required.

Finally, and probably one of the most significant disadvantages is the lack of design flexibility. At the outset, plans can easily accommodate bespoke features. However, when building in this way, all designs must be approved very early on in the process. Once manufacturing starts, change is limited – and can be very expensive.

Why is There a Learning Curve?

Every modular project I have been involved in over the last 25 years suffers from a learning curve. This often brings with it many questions. Unsurprisingly, the main topic is how does the system meet building regulations? This is where we start to get to the crux of the matter.

I am not aware that building regulations recognise volumetric construction. This is something both Professor Green and Mark Farmer have recognised as a barrier to MMC. It appears to inhibit volumetric construction from being widely adopted as a method to solve the housing crisis.

If we were to have a set of building regulations that cover MMC, and in particular volumetric construction, then surely this should at least provide some legitimacy to the methods.

It would allow teams who carry out due diligence, to have direct reference to regulation so that the proposed method of construction can be validated.

What About Pipeline?

I think this is an obvious concern. Investment into MMC is huge. We only need to look at what has happened recently with Legal and General (who probably had more funds available than most) to see that pipeline or lack of certainty in that pipeline could create an uneconomical situation.

There is a fallacy that MMC costs less.

In my experience, it doesn’t. However, what it does do is provide more efficient programmes which can be very significant. This gives investors a faster ROI (Return on Investment). So, projects can be delivered more quickly.

What About Quality?

Again, in my experience, there are excellent processes in place in the factories to manage and check quality. Therefore, the quality of the products (if we call them that) should be of a high standard due to the process.

Another benefit is that there are significantly fewer vehicle movements and the projects require less labour on site. This has to be a good thing surely from a health and safety perspective.

In Summary

MMC or volumetric construction which I have focused on brings benefits, such as speed and quality. This all leads to a quicker return on investment. But there are barriers to adoption.

So why is MMC and or volumetric construction seen as a competitor to ‘traditional construction’?

I don’t understand why when I have lived in it for over 10 years. What I have learnt is that not every project design suits a particular method of construction be it modular or otherwise. MMC and modular construction should be embraced as co-existing with traditional construction. It is just another way to build, and there is no one size fits all solution.

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