16th July 2019

Keep on Blocking

For twenty years various governments have been encouraging the housebuilding sector to move towards offsite construction and yet the industry is still dominated by traditional brick and block. We certainly see the market evolving, with a closer focus on efficiency and pre-manufactured components, but I think build methods are set for gradual development rather than wholesale reinvention and the current discussion around Modern Methods of Construction provides a good pathway.

Wholescale modular construction has often been presented as a solution that increases speed of construction while also eliminating defects.  Proponents look at car manufacturing as an example of how factory-controlled, standardised production can work with maximum efficiency.  

I would argue that this is a false analogy.  Buying a house is simply not the same experience as buying a car. We want our cars to be standard, uniform and recognisable, while we want our home to be individual and distinct. Housebuilders understand that and work hard to make sure their developments are full of variety and character.

Focusing on speed of build is also a false note.  As the Letwin report so clearly outlined last year, the business model of volume housebuilders relies on selling houses as they are completed.  Having too many completed homes coming on the market at the same time simply brings down the value.  It makes commercial sense to be able to speed up or slow down the build process as sales interest fluctuates: not a market which encourages volume offsite manufacture.

These factors are part of a complex picture explaining why the apparently clear benefits of modular construction have not converted our housebuilding industry.

However, housebuilders are nothing if not commercial and are always looking for ways to increase efficiency.  The current focus, encouraging the use of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC), looks far more positive.

Government is behind a move to MMC, making it condition of funding under the Accelerated Construction Programme and leaving us with the question of definition - what exactly is a Modern Method of Construction?

At the recent Explore Offsite Housing Conference held by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, a solution to this conundrum was presented in the form of a seven-tier definition framework.

This framework provides a scale of innovation that allows a full range of approaches to MMC to be identified and encouraged.  From Level 7 – introducing site-process based initiatives to improve efficiency - right up to Level 1, representing the use of offsite modular construction for the structure of the building.

This tiered approach allows for evolution, with users able to follow a process progressing up the scale of MMC and finding the point at which innovation suits their business model.

I see clear advantage for this system as it acknowledges the great innovations that have been quietly introduced in sites across the UK. It also allows manufacturers to understand where their products fit within the definition of MMC, an important step forward in marketing terms.

From our own position it is easy to welcome these definitions as we have products that sit comfortably throughout the scale.  From Thin-Joint through to our Celcon Elements we have MMC products ready to go, and in some cases, these solutions have been available for years.  Recognised as MMC and therefore clearly acceptable solutions within Government definitions, our innovative solutions are gaining traction with housebuilders.

While we are ready to supply such innovations, together with the experience and technical expertise to support their adoption, we also cannot overlook the obvious fact that our most popular products remain our standard Celcon Blocks. Now more frequently used in party walls, spandrels and foundations as well as walls, demand for Celcon Blocks remains strong.

It was with this understanding that H+H invested so heavily in both its Borough Green and Pollington factories, allowing us to increase production volume to meet rising demand.  Our merchant customers will be well aware of our partnership approach, ensuring our established customers can rely on a secure supply of product in a buoyant market.

We are very confident of ongoing demand for aircrete, simply because of its widely acknowledged performance benefits. We don’t see a UK housebuilding industry that is about to move wholescale to offsite, but we are ready with products to support a gradual evolution to Modern Methods of Construction.