The housing crisis in the UK is well documented. The Welsh Government is looking to build 20,000 affordable homes by the end of the Senedd term in 2026. Alongside the basic requirement for more homes, there is a drive to improve space standards, energy performance and placemaking to create sustainable communities.
These ambitions are currently constrained by a financial crisis which inevitably requires an increased focus on economy, and best value solutions. This is driving Tirion to continually review and explore modern methods of construction (MMC), to improve qualitative and quantitative outcomes at a faster pace and lower cost.
Key to this process is understanding why various MMC initiatives have underachieved and how the obstacles they have encountered may be overcome. Despite the potential benefits, MMC has been slow to take off. A recent report showed that the proportion of new homes built using MMC was currently only between 6 and 10%.
Nevertheless, prior to recent adversity, adoption of Off-Site Manufacturing (OSM) was growing in the housing market. Various degrees of factory manufacture are used including flat wall panels (some including windows), bathroom pods, kitchens, stairs, roof dormers and fitted out volumetric housing units. Quality benefits have been delivered but factors inhibiting success include high costs, constrained flexibility, and perception of poor aesthetics. With the wisdom of hindsight, the failure of the volumetric businesses (whole rooms or complete homes) to compete in the general residential market was somewhat predictable.
The benefits of MMC have yet to be fully realised and much work needs to be done in terms of optimising design, construction, OSM processes, client education, and supply chain interrelationships. However, if the obstacles can be overcome, MMC has the potential to deliver:
- Better quality and more durable homes, requiring less maintenance.
- More homes, built faster, for less cost.
- Lower energy and carbon consumption during manufacture, as well as construction and the building’s lifespan.
- Less material consumption and less site waste.
- Improved health and safety.
- Sustainable skilled employment opportunities.
The ultimate aim is to deliver homes in similar fashion to how the aerospace and motor vehicle industries manufacture their products, with a similar variety of architectural and technological choices.
The industry needs to reinvent itself. The relationship between Government, developers, designers, manufacturers, material suppliers, and builders, needs to adapt if MMC is to fulfil its potential. This approach will continue to be successful for repetitious units such as hotels, student flats and temporary accommodation, but general housing will require a different approach to succeed, perhaps comprising a mix of flat panel kits for flexible spaces e.g. lounges and bedrooms and volumetric units for highly equipped spaces e.g. bathrooms. The choice between 2D and 3D OSM will depend on circumstances and the industry should develop both.
Most importantly, in order to succeed, the MMC industry needs to invest in the right equipment to deliver the right products, considering lessons learnt. In order to justify investment, it will need a very high level of confidence in the volume of orders it will receive. Without positive market management, MMC will continue to evolve over time, but society needs the benefits listed above much quicker than an organic evolution. To achieve a step change, the industry needs:
- Guaranteed volumes to enable funding of factory set-up costs and automation.
- Standardisation of house designs and components.
- Acceptance of manufacturer leadership of design and construction.
- Positive attitudes from insurance organisations and mortgage companies.
- Positive assistance from planning and other statutory authorities.
- Creative ways of delivering appealing place-making and customer aspirations.
Steps 1 and 2 are critical. Ideally, the market would form collaborative clusters to deliver these conditions, but in reality this is unlikely to happen and Government intervention will be required. This could be achieved through wise use of statutory powers, but the management of the grant assisted sectors and bodies seems to offer the most obvious route. Wales offers an ideal environment in which to introduce such an approach.
In Wales, a high proportion of housing is delivered by RSLs. A combination of firm leadership, innovative design, and incentivised industry collaboration could deliver a suite of standard house designs and components. If grant assistance is then dependent on usage of these standard designs, industry would have the guaranteed volumes that it needs. Tirion intends to help lead this approach.
Positive engagement of the insurance and mortgage companies should naturally follow with green, longer-term mortgages playing a role. Positive discrimination by planning and other statutory bodies may require government guidance.
The challenge for Tirion and other housing companies is to utilise a limited variety of standard layouts delivered through ‘optimised’ MMC, to enable new architecture and placemaking that combines a focus on community wellbeing, sustainable beautiful spaces, new technologies, and net-zero operation.
OSM houses may be used for terraced, semi-detached or detached housing but are best applied to streets of terraced houses of two and three storeys, where appealing architecture relies on high quality materials, good detailing, proportion and elegant, repetitious geometry. Various finishes, textures, and colours may be used. Frequent application of solar panels to deliver zero carbon operation, combined with shading to prevent overheating, and the constraints and opportunities presented by MMC, requires innovative architecture.
Good placemaking suggests liberal use of expertly designed and maintained landscaping. In this context trees provide decoration and function. SUDS regulations present opportunities to use swales, reed beds and ponds. Car parking needs to be well planned and controlled taking account of future travel trends and EV charging points. Modern refuse recycling methods also need to be carefully integrated into infrastructure layouts.
Tirion’s requirement to maintain tenant demand over a long-term investment period (typically 50 years) introduces a new element of sustainability. Our developments must be enhanced by the passage of time, not diminished. Tirion will continue to focus on the delivery of long-term value through placemaking, climate change resilience and community engagement that ensures ongoing demand for our homes alongside sustained investor appetite.
All these things present new place making and architectural challenges and opportunities. Architects should not be concerned by the constraints of industry led MMC, they should embrace new thinking.
This isn’t just about the fabric of the homes we build. Research by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment shows:
- The way 85% of us feel is influenced by the architecture that surrounds us and the places in which we live.
- 81% of people take an active interest in how buildings both look and feel (Streets of Shame, 2002, CABE Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment).
This is ingrained in our culture where buildings represent the way we see ourselves, as well as the way we see the world around us. An important aspect of this is the quality and size of space. Space gives residents the opportunity to thrive, to grow and carve their own place in the world in whatever way they choose. This is more than just about roads and lawns but creating beauty and opportunity to enjoy the immediate environment. This is fundamental to how Tirion seeks to combine the need to build efficient and sustainable homes whilst ensuring the wellbeing of the community is managed over the long-term.
We seek to ensure that the emotional impact of beautiful buildings and spaces can transcend the personal, and improve the communities we live in. When our built environment looks good, provides leisure opportunities, and our homes feel good inside, our world is improved.
Thoughtful and dynamic partnerships between government and industry can create the conditions for the delivery of MMC developments which improve, affordability, speed, quality, places and, our lives. Tirion is committed to making this is a reality in the future and helping Wales lead the way.