Offsite Manufacturing & MMC: 3D v 2D – What lessons have we learnt?

The UK Government Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) champion led calls to ‘Modernise or Die’ in 2016 (Farmer) with many 2D and 3D solutions setting out to reduce construction time, overall costs and the carbon footprint whilst improving quality control and striving to double productivity.

This fuelled increased efforts across the UK to adopt and incorporate MMC into the housing market and we have seen a surge in new players in the 3D sector.  One example being VBC, founded in Philadelphia in 2009 with a view to expand not only in the US but also in Europe proving their commitment by purchasing Polish steel modular company Polcom as well as the assets of failed US modular builder Katerra.  Across the pond, calls for implementation of ‘platform thinking and modularized product platforms’ were outlined by the Joint Centre for Housing Studies, Harvard University (Rupnik et al, 2022) and within the UK and more specifically in Scotland, the first large-scale (£9.8m) affordable modular housing development in South Ayrshire was completed in 2022 by Connect Modular and the Wee House Company.

The scaled-up manufacturing of 3D modular homes in the UK is not far from the test-lab, with a limited number of success stories and small-scale triumphs to date. Every manufacturer is currently developing their own solution which requires quality and performance testing and unsurprisingly, despite significant investment, we have seen the unfortunate collapse of 3 well publicised modular house production start-up businesses (Urban Splash, Ilke Homes, L&G Modular), with a further (Caledonian Modular) narrowly escaping the same fate being saved by concrete-frame specialist JRL.

These issues and losses can be attributed to various factors but most importantly, looking ahead;   how do we avoid a catch 22 situation – ‘it’s not profitable if it can’t scale, but it can’t scale if it’s not profitable’ …?

The tried and tested development of panelised 2D, open or closed timber kit production in the UK shows that well-established manufacturers have needed to identify and work with clients/ developers and academic institutions that complement and enhance the way they work overall, exemplified by Donaldson Timber Systems, CCG Offsite Manufacturing and Space 4. This model, as well as, or in addition to the adoption a multi-project or ‘in house’ approach ensuring flow in factory production, is key. For instance, the acquisition of Oregon Timber frame by Barratt and Taylor Lane Timber Frame by Cala Group; Kirkwood Timber Frame, Springfield Timber Kit Systems and Robertson Timber Engineering.

2D off-site positivity in the UK has not necessarily been mirrored in the US, with Entekra, one of residential offsite construction’s juggernauts since its 2017 start-up in Ripon, CA, shutting down operations in June 2023 due to poor profitability. This followed the collapse of Kattera in 2021, a technology-driven off-site construction company specialising in the manufacture of mass timber products -panellised home components. These examples are possibly unique to the US where the market is dominated by 3D prefabricated systems, volumetric modular, and manufactured housing structures that are almost entirely completed in the factory – developed around the single-wide trailer model supported by the federally managed and regulated manufactured housing program, also known as the HUD Code.

Future successes in the US point to a more ‘hybrid approach’ mixing volumetric and panelised modules in the same project, affording volumetric modular companies a high level of flexibility.  Worldwide volumetric systems have evolved from the practise of panelised and kit-of-parts construction. This has enabled a balance in terms of repeatable configurations (standardisation) versus customisation, becoming more user-friendly – with the development of sophisticated cutting, design and modularisation software systems. These advances demonstrate a progressive path for both 2D or 3D products produced separately or in conjunction and is therefore a valuable lesson for the UK market.

Alongside collaboration across the board, distinct cultural/work ethic attitudes, a healthy appetite for  digital process technologies, time is needed to fully realise the classic MMC advantages. These collective factors are demonstrated by Lindbäcks Bygg, the Scandinavian nation’s premier modular home manufacturer. When their latest factory becomes operational this year, the 75-year-old company will be able to produce more than 25,000 square feet of turnkey housing per week(!) Meanwhile, Japanese modular pioneers, Sekisui Heim have been producing light-gauge steel homes since the 1970s becoming the world’s first company to construct houses using the Unit Construction Method. Their pursuit of quality and efficiency has evolved over time to a new high with “robotic house construction” – utilising industrial robots in their Kyushu factory.

In contrast, Katerra serves as a high-profile illustration of attempting hyper-accelerated growth and assuming too much scope too quickly. In the UK, the ability to cross-pollinate the modular production process with precision engineering techniques inspired by the automotive industry has not yet achieved the desired results. More time will perhaps tell, for those who continue to strive for off-site solution production in the face of adversity – including Laing O’Rourke, Swan Group, Countryside and TopHat (which secured a £70m investment earlier this year to continue operations).

Whilst notable examples of success in Japan and Sweden have evolved from 1970’s beginnings; the  UK and US’s  pursuit of the “dream of the factory-made house” might not necessarily require reinvention of the wheel and overly complex processes; but adaptation of the successful 2D and 3D models outlined  – by architects, builders, developers, economists, and policymakers alike.

Mackenzie England has worked across the MMC markets for over 10 years, developing an advanced understanding and experience of the evolving 2D and 3D solutions. Mackenzie England specialises in difficult search – across the built environment & beyond with a proven methodology for your challenging recruitment needs.


Modularization Precedes Digitization in Offsite Housing Delivery; Bringing Digitalization Home Symposium; Rupnik, Smith & Schmetterer, Joint Centre for Housing Studies – Harvard University,  November 2022, USA.

Modernise or Die – The Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model; Mark Farmer, Cast Consultancy, Commissioned by Construction Leadership Group for the UK Government, October 2016.

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