In the fifth of our debate series we assembled a panel of experts to look at modern methods of construction: how can Scotland maximise their uses to develop a globally competitive edge?
The main issues addressed were:
- Scotland’s MMC journey so far
- The barriers to MMC in Scotland
- The opportunities for all variants of MMC to be adopted and its future role in Scotland
- The Scottish Skills Agenda and MMC
- Standards and quality compliance in MMC – cultural and International lessons
Our chair was experienced and well-known leader in Scottish construction Derek Shewan, Chief Executive of Robertson Group. Having been with Robertson for nearly 40 years in senior management positions leading estimating, commercial and procurement functions and former Chair of the SBF and a board member of Construction Scotland, he is well placed to manage the variety of subjects covered by our five panellists and audience members.
We were delighted and privileged to have Nicola Barclay, Chief Executive of Homes for Scotland, with a career spanning over 20 years in the home building industry add her perspective on MMC, and Dr Nicola Crawford Programme Director for Developing Young Workforce Glasgow who, with over 20 years’ experience in the education sector, talked about the sector’s skills. Alex Goodfellow, Group Managing Director for Stewart Milne Timber Systems who has over 30 years’ experience in the construction and house building sectors created a lively discussion alongside Director of CCG (Scotland) Ltd’s Calum Murray, who has also worked in the sector at director level over the last 30 years, specialising in housing and urban regeneration. We were also pleased to have the Chief Executive and lead voice of the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre, Stephen Good on the panel: as a trained architect Stephen has extensive construction industry experience and his career has spanned the sustainability consultancy, architectural design, offsite manufacturing and construction management sectors. Everyone brought their vast experience and knowledge of MMC to the debate.
The need to adopt and embrace new methods of construction is forcing the industry into its next evolutionary step: The Scottish Government’s call for a low carbon home building industry within its Sustainable Housing Strategy, coupled with the well-publicised shortage of skilled labour in the housing market and the Scottish Affordable Homes Target for 2021 are all significant catalysts for this. The focus on modern methods of construction (MMC) was also fuelled by the publication of the Farmer Review, Modernise or Die, in 2016. As a result of these factors, a major piece of research has been initiated by the Scottish Government to look into off-site manufacturing – embracing techniques available on an international level and comparing them to the scale, capacity and nature of the Scottish market. From this, the Scottish Government is looking to model both policy and the direction of travel.
Scotland has grown the roots of the MMC culture and should have the innovative capacity to deliver solutions for the future across all methods of construction, but how can Scotland maximise their uses to develop a globally competitive edge?
Scotland’s MMC journey
The panel agreed that Scotland’s strength comes from its experience, knowledge and heritage; but playing a lead role in the UK timber kit market and the development and evolution of panellised systems, has not followed through to the wider adoption of prefabricated or modular construction. Everyone collectively emphasised that offsite production has shown to reduce prelims due to shorter time on site, lower project management costs and professional fees, shorten programme times, reduce defects and rework (due to high first time quality), decrease wastage on site, reduce weather dependency and reliance on transient labour, increase strategic procurement and has resulted in much improved health and safety on site.
It was highlighted by Alex Goodfellow, that entrepreneurial, privately owned Scottish companies and SMEs are leading the way in terms of manufacturing innovation and digital systems, which can be utilised to improve productivity and quality. They have formed an off-shoot ‘Off-site solutions Scotland’ from the Construction Scotland Innovation Centre. Stephen Good said they are working hard to promote these advances and facilitate their widespread use with the support of the Scottish Government. It was felt that most of the larger PLCs have not invested enough in MMC and have been reluctant to embrace it: it was alluded to that there is a feeling that building bricks one on top of the other in a field is how it has always been done, so why change it? However, slowly, larger firms are partnering with timber engineering or off-site manufacturing companies, the recent example given was Barratt buying Oregon Timber in Scotland. The panel noted that so far, partnering has predominantly been in England due to the directive of Homes England, which was set up to encourage partners to develop and use MMC through a range of initiatives and the provision of development finance and land. This creation of pipeline and promise, has given companies the confidence to invest in MMC, giving rise to both Engie and Places for People partnering with Ilke Homes; Japan’s biggest housebuilder, Sekisui House moving into the UK housing market after striking a deal that will see it work with Homes England; Urban Splash delivering thousands of new homes across England and one of the UK’s largest house builders, Berkeley Homes, planning to open a factory in Kent with the aim of producing 1,000 homes a year.
The barriers to MMC in Scotland
Calum Murray outlined that Scotland faces a number of challenges including our infrastructure networks, where Scottish roads are largely unsuitable for the delivery of modular construction on lorries. He also highlighted however that further advances in hybrid panellised systems including a ‘panel and pod’ may be the way forward in Scotland, combined with advances in modular on-site assembly. Nicola Barclay highlighted that a better understanding of all types of modern methods of construction, with a better use of the terminology and language to prevent client confusion, is necessary and Stephen Good agreed, citing that this could be aided with the promotion of the Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) definition framework, which has been developed by a specialist MMC sub-group – MHCLG Joint Industry Working Group.
Despite off-site production being shown to increase quality and reduce time and cost, the panel noted that MMC’s direct benefit in Scotland has not been quantified: the data and analytics are missing. Calum emphasised that education is key and the understanding of what MMC can bring to clients is lacking; some clients don’t care how it is built, they just want a quality product delivered on time and to budget.
It was generally felt that local authorities’ interface with contractors delivering MMC is stagnating and causing a backlog, due to the current lack of inhouse skills and capability to reach decisions within reasonable timescales,both in terms of planning and building control. Stephen noted that ambassadors for MMC are not forthcoming in Scotland, and BIM needs to be pushed more actively to integrate with all methods of construction. It was implied that these enabling technologies and digital platforms, if used correctly, will advance MMC and its future – particularly in standardisation and design processes. Panellists mentioned that the VR dimension and filming process for each build is yet to be fully exploited and recent changes in Fire Preventative legislation have not favoured evidence-based advances in the technology e.g. hybrid products, and have instead limited the use of timber frame due to CLT not being able to be used on external walls.
The opportunities for all variants of MMC to be adopted and its future role in Scotland
The panel emphasised that there is an opportunity for more house builders and contractors, including PLCs, to partner with timber or off-site manufacturing businesses, relative to their size and turnover, to create the supply and demand relationship and drive MMC and the needed R&D forward.
It was noted that there are calls for the Scottish Government to follow the ‘Homes England’ directive, to enable a context and umbrella for a similar mandate, to drive MMC and low carbon initiatives across the Scottish house building sector. Nicola Barclay highlighted that the various forms of MMC and legislative change provide the Scottish construction industry and Scottish Government with an opportunity to standardise products, improve quality and introduce building standards across the sector. This will also result in authorities/warrantors becoming more integrated. Alex noted that Scotland’s more stringent quality levels mean we are better placed to lead the way forward on Building Standards and the tradition of off-site manufacturing skills, should enable Scotland to embrace all variants of MMC more readily than other countries in the UK, who have started on the back foot.
The Scottish skills agenda and MMC
The skills shortage across the construction industry in Scotland is a huge problem and changing general perception of the industry is key to help tackling this. MMC adoption will result in training and skills development and the digital technological advances also promote the role of operatives, attracting a younger and more diverse workforce to the wider construction industry. Nicola Crawford explained that 5 construction industry partners currently work with Skills Development Scotland to educate pupils through insight sessions and work experience. However, with SMEs shouldering the training burden across Scotland, Calum pointed to the larger contractors to do more. CITB research carried out in England, looking at the impact of modern methods of construction on skills requirements for housing, showed that findings support the view that increasing the use of panellised and volumetric methods of construction would reduce the overall workforce requirement, relative to increasing use of current construction methods, with more of the current site-based workforce moving to work offsite. Alex emphasised that Scotland has an off-site heritage and skills foundation on which to grow and use to its advantage, unlike the rest of the UK who lack the tradition of timber kit.
Standards and quality compliance in MMC – cultural and international lessons for MMC
Stephen noted that the fragmented Scottish construction industry, which moves responsibility from one discipline to the next within the procurement environment, often encourages a focus on the cheapest way of delivering a project and shifts emphasis away from quality. The CIOB Code of Quality Management Consultation was noted during the debate, and it emphasises from recent research that the sign-off stage needs to be quality focused, not merely about getting payment and it identifies the need to make quality a personal motive and generate a culture of pride.
A wide spread cultural dismissal of quality standards due to the attitude that ‘it was not needed on the last build’ was highlighted by an audience member – due to standards not being measured consistently or enforced. It was felt that the off-site construction industry needs to incorporate consistent quality control measures and regulatory compliance measurements with the Build offsite Property Assurance scheme (BOPAS) highlighted as a potential approach. (BOPAS is a risk-based evaluation which demonstrates to funders, lenders, valuers and purchasers that homes built from non-traditional methods and materials will stand the test of time for at least 60 years.)
Cultural differences in work ethics and quality were discussed by the panel e.g. in China, Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and Japan – and a member of the audience noted that this could see devaluation of MMC in Scotland, as importation (despite the lead time and cash difficulties presented) gives a guarantee to the desired level of outstanding quality and finish e.g. the 213-bed Moxy Hotel in Glasgow.
A member of the audience questioned that if the Scottish Government follows the Homes England directive in favouring the sale of land to SMEs, which has created the increased pipeline and knock on demand for MMC to meet target, will they tend to favour the large PLCs which traditionally don’t invest as much in R&D.
During post-debate feedback an audience member commented that changing culture is the key, and provided the analogy of what Ikea did to furniture; interestingly, Worthing Council is considering a deal with BoKlok, owned by Ikea and Skanska, to build up to 162 homes in the seaside town.
Audience members closed-off the debate, noting that if Scotland does not further adapt and evolve its journey with MMC, in 5-10 years’ time, the industry may have ‘missed the boat’ and we will be importing prefabricated modular homes from England and overseas. Audience comments also concluded that being complacent and waiting for mega companies to come in and re-invent the wheel for us is a notable risk … would it result in the Scottish roots of MMC heritage and tradition being felled into extinction?