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Modern methods of construction promise more efficient building processes through reduced costs and waste.

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02 March 2020 Greg Pitcher

As the world gears up for the Tokyo Olympics later this year, an unexpected revolution is taking place on the site of the London 2012 Games.

On land formerly used for the Athletes’ Village in Stratford, construction giant Mace is pioneering a new style of building. The firm says its “next-generation” High Rise Solutions system will slash the programme for the twin-tower, 524-home NO6 project by four months.

Mace believes that its combination of digital technology and off-site manufacturing is the future and is backing it with serious resources. It recently launched a new department – Mace Tech – to “manage deployment and delivery of advanced off-site sub-assembly construction methods harnessing the latest technologies”.

Mace Tech claims to be able to reduce design and construction programmes by 25 per cent, vehicle movements by 40 per cent and waste by 70 per cent. Business unit director Shaun Tate says High Rise Solutions is “more than just a new off-site construction method. It is a new digital approach to how we assemble and construct buildings”.

“We interrogated the entire production-to-delivery cycle, taking inspiration from the auto industry with its integrated production and assembly line, looking at how we can develop smarter and more efficient off-site assembly methods to drive better outcomes.”

Mace’s system is at the crest of a huge wave of innovation grouped together and known as modern methods of construction (MMC). Although diverse in some respects, these methods involve moving on from traditional labour-heavy, weather-dependent, site-based construction and tend to be inspired by the benefits of controllable, technology-enabled production techniques.

The government is waking up to the potential of MMC. Then-housing minister Esther McVey said in January that the industry could soon be worth £40 billion. In a speech delivered at Legal & General’s modular housing factory in Yorkshire, McVey said: “It is only right that here, in the North, where the first industrial revolution hit the world, we forge ahead with a new revolution.”

From residential to commercial

While much of the hype around MMC has largely been focused on homes, they have much to offer for commercial buildings.

Joseph Daniels – a trailblazer in this field since launching the ambitious modular building specialist Project Etopia in 2015 at the age of 23 – says the system could be used for a wide range of structures. 

Daniels’ factory already produces enough panels to build 2,000 modular homes a year and is boosting capacity to build 6,000 a year. But he says “the build system is also perfectly suited to the creation of new commercial buildings” such as “annexes to existing structures on parcels of land that would be awkward and costly using traditional building methods”.

But MMC, with its technological underpinning and off-site manufacture, promises benefits to facilities managers working in construction in a way that traditional site methods do not.

“Besides allowing for the quick development of additional commercial space, the one singular advantage of MMC for facilities managers is that items requiring maintenance are all the same and similarly located in all our structures,” says Daniels. “This saves time and makes the job of finding and fixing ductwork, pipework, electrical and other elements much more efficient.”

Project Etopia creates highly engineered panels for delivery to site and assembly in situ. “We employ a panelised system as it allows for more flexibility, as buildings can be constructed to any size and specification,” says Daniels. “It also makes transportation quicker, easier and cheaper. 

“MMC has come on in leaps and bounds by combining energy, construction and intelligent technology. MMC techniques have evolved substantially due to improvements in technology. Any negative perceptions about these construction techniques are still based on the image of post-war ‘prefabs’.”

Such buildings were, in the past, characterised by poor insulation and air tightness, among other flaws. But Daniels says these issues “no longer hinder modern build systems. For example, our panels have better thermal efficiency than traditional buildings, with a superior U-value of 0.13 compared with 0.16 for a typical well-insulated wall in a new brick property”.

As technology and production systems have improved – and perhaps as budgets have tightened and the housing crisis has deepened – public and private sector attitudes to MMC have changed quickly. 

“There has been a big shift,” says Daniels. “Particularly at government level, where the thinking is that a substantial number of new homes will need to be constructed using MMC to meet housing targets. 

“Meanwhile, building organisations and authorities such as BRE (Building Research Establishment) are developing new quality marks for homes built using MMC. More and more investors and local authorities are getting excited about the opportunities presented by off-site construction to accelerate housebuilding.”

Getting funding for MMC has been challenging, says Daniels, largely because of the problem all innovations face; getting enough evidence to prove the benefits. 

“We are putting our panels through rigorous testing to prove they can stand up to the same environmental challenges as brick homes,” Daniels reveals. “For example, we already know our panels can withstand winds of up to 462mph.”

Up to standard 

“The introduction of new quality marks, such as BPS 7014, which is being developed by BRE, will certify the building performance of MMC homes and measure their performance against building standards. This will go a long way to satisfying funders’ due diligence.”

BPS 7014 Standard for Modular Systems for Dwellings certification is the UK’s first off-site construction standard and provides the framework to specify performance and verification for modular building systems and components in UK residential construction, which use advanced manufacturing processes.

BRE has partnered with Constructing Excellence, a membership body designed to boost the performance of the building industry in the UK. 

Head of Constructing Excellence Alison Nicholl says MMC is “coming of age… This is in terms of technical capability, increasing supply-chain capacity and client understanding. Initiatives such as the Construction Innovation Hub aim to accelerate that by tackling the technical and commercial barriers to uptake”.

Constructing Excellence is working closely with the Construction Innovation Hub, which is funded with £72 million from UK Research and Innovation’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. 

“Many of the issues we are exploring are around procurement, business models and overcoming the barriers to successful adoption,” says Nicholl. MMC – if implemented in a thought-out manner – can help facilities managers beyond the clear advantages of building quicker and cheaper. Other benefits include fewer logistical headaches and safety risks and less of an impact on the planet from creating a new or extended commercial building.

“There are some great case studies on reduced hours on site, reduced workforce on site and reduced crane lifts – all contributing to more sustainable outcomes and increased health and safety,” he adds.

Mark Farmer, the government-appointed champion for MMC, told the industry four years ago to “modernise or die”. Last year, he told an audience at the House of Lords that changing procurement models was critical to enable the built environment revolution.

“What we need is a fusion of digital and technology application across the whole spectrum of our industry, in an appropriate way, a move to higher levels of pre-manufactured value, taking reliance away from in situ final workface construction labour intensity and, crucially, we need a new framework to measure outcomes and value,” said Farmer.

Ultimately it will come down to finding the right people to enact the change. 

“We need new thinking, we need new talent… we need to present a wholly refreshed image and narrative of what working in the built environment sector represents,” concluded Farmer.  

Demolishing perceptions

There are modern methods to construct buildings and new ways to demolish them. Gone are the days of smashing down or blowing up structures and worrying about how to clean up the mess.

The National Federation of Demolition Contractors says there is “a hive of innovation” with talented and qualified demolition engineers, state-of-the-art equipment and wrap-around services. 

The modern demolition market is driven by complex methods, innovative thinking and deployment of robotics and advanced high-reach machinery. The result, further enabled by high-quality operative training through an industry-acclaimed competence card scheme, is making demolition a more “attractive and sustainable career choice for diverse newcomers looking to specialise in this discipline,” says the federation.

Technology has also played a role, enabling site supervisors to make, revise and share demolition project plans through cloud-based software, and it has given industry service providers the means to invent new demolition-specific products designed with safety, environment and efficiency in mind. 

“Advancement in the demolition industry brings clear and significant benefits for those who commission demolition projects, demolition contractors themselves and the environment,” says the federation. “Education, technology and innovation all play a part in ensuring that demolition projects are carried out efficiently – increasing productivity, saving cost, time, limiting inconvenience and ensuring that arisings from demolition works are handled safely and recycled or reused where possible.”

Although MMC can make an office expansion or warehouse creation project viable, new demolition methods can ensure that old or existing buildings are decommissioned efficiently and effectively. The federation says: “Modern demolition ensures that projects are completed on time, safely and with minimal inconvenience to residents, road users, surrounding businesses and so on. 

“Equipment for noise reduction and dust suppression, containment of a tidy demolition site, flexible working hours to limit disruption and other factors expected from considerate constructors today serve to reduce objections and enables a project to run smoothly, alleviating management headaches. 

“Wrap-around services including recycling facilities reduce the number of contractors required, saving time and money.”

MMC Quick Facts

  • Inspired, in part, by automotive assembly lines
  • Use of advanced off-site sub-assembly construction methods
  • Digital approach to assembly and construction of buildings
  • Touted as a solution to the UK’s housing shortage
  • Can be applied to new commercial buildings and for adding annexes to existing structures
  • Reduces labour costs 
  • Reduces construction waste
  • Shortens design and construction times
  • FMs benefit from assets requiring maintenance being similarly located in all structures
  • MMC panels exceed the thermal efficiency of traditional buildings, with a superior U-value of 0.13 compared with 0.16
  • MMC panels can withstand winds of up to 462mph
  • BRE’s BPS 7014 Standard for Modular Systems for Dwellings certification is the UK’s first off-site construction standard and gives the framework to specify performance and verification for modular building systems and components in UK residential construction, which use advanced manufacturing processes
  • Not to be confused with post-war prefab buildings


Emma Potter
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