Offsite home builders lay foundations for collaboration at the AMRC

08 August 2019

Government plans to build 300,000 new homes every year will only be met if the offsite sector forges true collaboration between clients, policy makers, manufacturers and research and development organisations such as the AMRC, to adopt modern methods of construction for homes.

That stark warning – and a powerful case for the construction sector to adopt Industry 4.0 technologies – was made at a remarkable roundtable event on offsite modular housing held at the University of Sheffield AMRC, led by Mark Farmer, author of state-of-the-nation industry review Modernise or Die; Ray O’Rourke, chief executive of Laing O’Rourke, and Clive Betts MP, chairman of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Modern Methods for Construction (MMC).

The 40-strong gathering – including key players from the volumetric house building sector, national, regional and local government and academia – focused on how to develop strategic R&D collaboration to drive innovation, improve quality, and hit low carbon, climate and energy targets while delivering the government’s house building ambitions.

Clive Betts MP identified the AMRC as having an important role in making construction more collaborative by applying the lessons it has learned in bringing industry, research and academia together for advanced manufacturing in aerospace and automotive with the likes of rivals Boeing and Airbus working on common challenges in a collaborative research environment.

“The first clear message we want to get across from our report is that government is committed to building 300,000 new homes a year in this country and the reality is that will not happen unless we start to expand our building techniques – without Modern Methods for Construction (MMC) we are not going to get the 300,000 homes.”

He said government needed an overall strategy to ‘bring all the bits and pieces together’ for the industry around standards, quality, warranties, skills and training.

“We do need to pull that together. We need homes where innovation, research, development, skills improvements and standards can all be brought together and laid down and industry take forward. That’s why the role of the AMRC is so important, if it can enable that to happen then hopefully MMC in future can help to deliver a substantial part of the 300,000 homes the country needs.”

Mark Farmer, author of state-of-the-nation review on the construction sector, 'Modernise or Die'.

Mark Farmer said the roundtable was a unique gathering of cross-industry representation and spoke about the ‘imperative’ for collaboration within the volumetric residential sector.

“In residential we have some very unique challenges around the fact that the government does not have a home building programme. It relies on the private sector, it relies on housing associations and increasingly on local authorities to deliver the residential that we need. And also within the ranges of MMC, volumetric or category one as it’s now known, has some specific characteristics that we all need to think about.

“There’s a really interesting set of dynamics in place at the moment which I think makes this gathering really timely and part of it starts with the fact we have this big wave of consumerism sweeping over our residential sector.

“We have the eye of the public, and in terms of media, completely focussed on residential delivery in this country. More so than - I believe - than any other construction asset class.

“We have a problem with quality in construction, a problem that is ultimately linked to one thing which is skills, or lack of; the ability to deliver certainty at scale in our industry has never been under pressure as much as it is at the moment.

“There is real recognition now that it is not just about the numbers but about the quality. It is quantity and quality side by side, one cannot go without the other.

“In the last three or four months there has been a sea change in the view on carbon and climate change that is starting to really take hold in the construction industry and certainly in the home building industry.

“With all of that as a backdrop to the pressures we have in our industry – MMC and the opportunity to do things differently – probably the stars have never been aligned the way that we see at the moment.”

Ray O'Rourke, chief executive of Laing O’Rourke, addressing the roundtable event.

He said there is a real opportunity to be seized for change and digital manufacturing technologies would be critical to that.

“It is not about working in silos but joining things up.

“Today has one aim which is how do you grow the cake rather than slice the cake up in to smaller and smaller pieces, which is the risk we have in volumetric manufacturing.

“At the moment there are new players coming in and established players starting to mature but we have to grow the cake, if we’re going to build 300k homes a year. Growing the cake is working together; it means dropping some of the competitive barriers we perceive exist and think how we do this together.

“We need to start thinking about how we change the game.”

Colin Sirett, CEO of the AMRC, said the organisation was well placed to help shape that change as it had been a catalyst for collaboration in one the world’s fiercest industries – aerospace.

“The first movers are critical on this,” he said.

Ray O’Rourke, chief executive of construction firm Laing O’Rourke, said R&D collaboration is vital for the industry, adding: “Our industry in this country needs to step up and grasp the opportunity it has.

“The opportunity here is remarkable and exciting.”

Allan Griffin, Head of Construction and Infrastructure Strategy at the AMRC, said: “It was great to convene an unprecedented gathering of major industry stakeholders here at the AMRC and to hear the real desire of the sector to collaborate around delivering affordable high quality homes of the future which will address on one of the UK’s most pressing social issues.

“There have been many false dawns in the past but today it feels like the time is right.  National and local government policy is looking towards MMC, the supply chain is really gearing up to deliver and technology is becoming affordable.”

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