Are we finally reaching the tipping point on MMC?

2 September 2019 | By Mike Foy

Manufacturing and standardisation is leading to higher quality and reduced costs. Image: Go Modular Technologies (UK)

Could modern methods of construction finally be on the cusp of making a real difference to the way the construction industry operates, asks Mike Foy.

Mike Foy

Much has been written in the last few years about progress to speed up the introduction of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC).

So are we reaching the tipping point or are we revisiting the same old cycle of identifying a problem, then setting targets for a solution, only to see it drift, as we’ve seen over the years with both the Latham Report in 1994 and the Egan Report in 1998? Both these reports saw the potential for greater standardisation of components and design details for offsite construction.

More recently, Mark Farmer reinforced all the previous messages, and added others, in his aptly titled report Modernise or Die. He clearly identified the issues of poor performance that we need to deal with: low productivity; low predictability; structural and leadership fragmentation; low margins; adversarial pricing models and financial fragility.

Government attention to MMC

We keep reminding ourselves of what needs changing but the cycle of enthusiasm followed by ambition ends up being watered down to business as usual until the next report is commissioned (which sometimes follows a crisis) and we start the cycle all over again.

The CIOB submitted written evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technical Committee on offsite construction last year and the government’s most recent call for evidence by the Housing Communities and Local Government Committee on Modern Methods of Construction – due to report later this year – is another indication of the attention currently being given to MMC.

It’s worth remembering that this is not new, revolutionary thinking (and this is the frustration for me): MMC in its various forms has been carried out for years. For example, the Empire State Building (1931) was constructed in 13 months of a standardised steel frame with standardised detailing – and this was all before BIM.

Of course, much has changed in the intervening years and we now have tools and techniques which support the current emphasis towards MMC. The opportunity is there to be taken if we open our minds to a new way of thinking.

The positive change I am observing in some areas is the thinking around manufacturing and standardisation leading to higher quality and reduced costs without necessarily impacting on customer choice and a degree of flexibility. It’s about changing the years of ingrained belief that “this is the way we do things, so why change”. Some clients and building users are as guilty of this as the supply side.

Which leads me to the non-technical but very big challenge of perception where many building users of all types still hold on to the belief that the days of post-war prefab are back – which they aren’t.

All of us involved have a major responsibility to get the facts right and communicate them in a way which is understood by all. Importantly, they need to be trusted as not just today’s good idea but something which can bring a better product and improve our current industry record in areas like productivity.

Response to quality issues

It’s regrettable that some of the quality issues which are around us at present are of the industry’s own making, and the CIOB Quality Commission is undertaking a key piece of work to help us both understand and respond to the issues around how quality is managed.

MMC is not the answer to everything so are we at the tipping point? I think we are, but we have a lot of work ahead to convince all those involved in the industry, contractors, clients, suppliers and users of our buildings, that there is a better way for some projects.

We have tried many times before – let’s make it stick this time.

Mike Foy is regional head, Department for Education and vice president of the CIOB

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