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Modular construction: Providing an agile solution

Now is the time for a revolutionary shift in construction to embrace modular technology and more progressive, agile business models, argues our Chairman Matt Bennion.

Many hope that the pandemic will inspire change, innovation and evolution across many industries. It is my hope that it will revolutionise construction too, changing our behaviours and opening minds to modern methods of construction (MMC) in a far more meaningful way. It is promising to see some evidence that the industry is beginning to wake up to the fact that we cannot continue as before, but now we need an acknowledgement that only a major transformation will enable us to truly build the country back better, greener, and faster, while meeting new targets and legislation.

I believe this will be accelerated by the significant shift in customer demand that we have seen over the last 18 months. End users now no longer just want buildings that are fit for purpose, but also buildings that are high quality, low carbon, low maintenance, agile and resilient.
The UK Government is at the forefront of this shift. In December 2020, it published its Construction Playbook. This document mandates that all Central Government departments and their arms length bodies must follow its strategy to build back faster and greener on a ‘comply or explain’ basis. Its 14 policies aim to drive better project and programme outcomes and speed of delivery be encouraging and harnessing innovation, collaboration, standardisation, MMC and improve how the supply chain works together. Critically, it also pushes for better building and workplace safety, and accelerates the journey to net zero by 2050.

The Playbook demands a different set of behaviours and creates the opportunity for a new breed of delivery partner, an opportunity that progressive, agile, born-digital, vertically integrated modular contractors like Reds10 are best suited to take.

Many of the outcomes called for in the Playbook can only be delivered by embracing MMC, establishing a fundamentally different relationship with the supply chain and embracing technology across the whole asset lifecycle, including operation. MMC, and in particular vertically integrated volumetric modular construction, brings obvious benefits such as higher quality, more controlled and safer working practices and reduced carbon delivery, but its potential to accelerate the development and adoption of low-carbon design and construction and new technologies is what will bring forward transformational change. Only then can we reduce carbon footprint, maintenance and total cost of ownership, as well as create buildings that are more connected, productive and supportive of health and wellbeing on an industry-wide scale.
Off-site construction is process-based, which means that new buildings can be delivered every four to six weeks, which provides the opportunity for continuous improvement in design details, materials and manufacturing processes, enriching the BIM model each time. Vertical integration streamlines the process, and integrates construction, manufacturing and design so that ideas to drive improvement and innovation are shared naturally and implemented quickly.

The processed-based approach leverages the benefits of standard details and maintains architectural integrity, core functionality and building performance. Quality is controlled, costs are saved, programmes are cut, sustainability is optimised without incurring additional costs and all with a smaller team.

Buildings created using off-site methods realise the benefits of SMART technology faster as well. The insight and learning from the SMART data that comes from the monitoring and control of completed buildings means that future buildings can be designed and operated to achieve zero carbon in use, lower maintenance costs and better end user experience.

This is all so positive that it is baffling that as an industry we haven’t yet embraced it with open arms. The reality is that many contractors are too slow or ill-equipped to adapt to MMC or simply don’t want to change their business model. This was evidenced by a survey carried out by RLB in February that showed, despite concerns over shortages of materials and labour, 113 main contractors said MMC take up had only gone up 2% since 2019. The use of BIM is only “creeping up” at tender stage too and the ‘Construction 2025’ report further noted that two-thirds of construction contracting firms are not being innovative enough and are halting technological progress within the sector.

We are already proving the value of an approach that has off-site construction at its heart. One example which highlights the enormous contribution it can make to net-zero projects is the Ministry for Defence’s Net Carbon Accommodation Programme (NetCAP), delivering new carbon-efficient accommodation blocks across the UK Defence Training Estate. To date, we have delivered blocks with EPC ratings of 12, -5, -7 and most recently -9, meaning they actually generate power for the site. We also achieved a reduction in embodied carbon (tCO2) of some 130 tonnes at no further cost when compared to the first iteration of the building. By treating every project as a prototype for the next, there can be continual feed-forward and product development. We’re now exploring how developments can be taken off grid entirely and scope for neighbourhood buildings to share power.

Delivering these blocks in a shorter timeframe minimised disruption for training troops, while labour was locally sourced, reducing the carbon footprint and helping to boost local economies by providing 400 jobs, 150 of which were new. The programme will run into early 2022 and is set to deliver further improvements on some of these figures.

If this can be achieved on one project, imagine if the same approach was applied to most projects in the construction industry, and not just in the public sector. Rather than being a hinderance to climate change mitigation, we’d be making a valuable contribution and delivering more social value at the same time.

The Government is setting out ambitious rebuilding targets in its Project Speed programme, designed to boost the economic recovery in post-pandemic Britain by investing in new green building programmes in all sectors and removing the obstacles that slow them down. If we don’t adopt modular technology and more progressive, agile business models, it’s going to be a huge challenge to meet the targets that have been set. Now is the time to take affirmative action and turn the tanker of the construction industry to a new, more positive direction.

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