SPECIAL REPORT: Offsite Housing

SPECIAL REPORT: Offsite Housing

In the first of three articles, Geoff Fawkes considers how offsite construction is helping to address the housing crisis by increasing productivity. He also looks at a pioneering new affordable housing scheme in Northern Ireland, which we will be following in forthcoming issues of LABM.

According to a report published by Shelter, 250,000 new homes a year need to be built in the UK to keep up with demand — and yet only 163,000 new homes were delivered in 2017. There are currently 24,000 households in housing stress in Northern Ireland alone. The unprecedented demand for new housing has created a systemic crisis.

There is a severe shortage of affordable homes and homelessness continues to increase year on year. There is a lack of skilled labour in construction, compounded by Brexit and an ageing workforce. The building industry has a poor delivery record with too many projects still fraught with sub-standard quality, delays and budget overruns. To quote one recent article — ‘too few homes, built at too high a price, for too few people’.

In response, the Government has set a target to build 300,000 new homes annually by the mid-2020s and has pledged its support to increase the use of offsite construction to help address the challenges. This commitment is reinforced by the House of Lords committee report into offsite manufacture, which calls for a radical overhaul of the construction industry.

Surge in interest in MMC

There has been a surge in interest in new construction methods in recent years and, particularly in offsite solutions as traditional ways of working continue to fall short of the required standards and volumes. Offsite construction though is not new — modular building systems have been widely used for decades from schools and healthcare schemes to hotels, commercial buildings and infrastructure projects. But are the skills transferrable?

Our view is there is far less risk in using an offsite manufacturer with a proven track record, readily available production capacity, and who already has expertise as a principal contractor.

Simplifying procurement, improving quality control

There are now multiple options in the UK offsite housing sector for manufacturers to produce structures which are installed onto pre-prepared foundations — leaving design, groundworks and other aspects of the project to others.

In our experience, this approach is far less efficient and quality control issues can arise where there is no single point of contact. Our solution is to give developers and housing providers a fully seamless turnkey service encompassing design, planning approvals, site preparation and groundworks, building manufacture, offsite fitting out, landscaping and infrastructure. This option delivers improved quality control, effective cost management, and simplifies procurement and project management for the client.

Understanding the benefits

There are clear benefits of building new homes in a factory, which have been well documented and are demonstrated with the use of offsite solutions in other sectors. Build programmes can be halved for a faster return on investment and earlier handover for occupation.

The quality of factory construction can far exceed site-based building methods. Offsite is not affected by poor weather or damage to materials on site. It is not reliant on subcontracted labour but instead uses a highly trained, permanent and multi-skilled workforce, manufacturing buildings in safe, purpose-designed factory environments. This has a hugely positive impact on the quality of construction. There is less disruption to neighbouring properties, fewer vehicle movements to site, and far less material wastage.

With independent accreditations such as BOPAS — the Buildoffsite Property Assurance Scheme – developers, investors and lenders can now have the benefit of stringent assessments to certify that a building system, such as the McAvoy offsite housing solution, will deliver consistent performance for at least 60 years. This significantly reduces risk and ensures long-term mortgageability.

Northern Ireland affordable housing shortfall

McAvoy is manufacturing the first offsite housing scheme to be built in Northern Ireland — a £4.7m contract for Clanmil Housing Association. Joymount is a pioneering new development to provide 40 much needed homes to help address the severe shortfall in social and affordable housing in this part of the country.

Due for completion in spring 2019, the scheme will feature apartments for couples, families and active older people, and two-bedroom family houses. There will also be three detached bungalows specifically designed for individual families with complex needs. The McAvoy offsite solution will reduce the build programme by around 60% on this scheme.

According to Carol McTaggart, Group Director of Development at Clanmil: “We want to be able to deliver new homes more quickly for people on the housing waiting list whilst still maintaining our high standards of design and build quality. We also need a solution that will deliver a range of energy-efficient homes with affordable running costs for our tenants.”

“By using advanced offsite construction technology, we believe we can shorten the programme for these 40 new homes by around 56 weeks which is crucial to reducing waiting lists.”

Offsite housing and digital technology

There is tremendous synergy between offsite construction and the latest digital techniques, which give us the opportunity to radically improve the way we design and produce new housing.

Our experience of BIM is much more than the creation of 3D models of buildings. It is about the process of how we deliver new homes for our clients in the most efficient way possible. Harnessing the latest technology has allowed us to streamline processes at the earliest stages of a project, to deliver shorter design periods and properties that exceed our clients’ expectations. It allows us to collaborate more effectively internally, with our supply chain and with the client. It also enables us to hand over a detailed package of information to simplify the management and maintenance of the new homes.

Shorter design periods are critical for offsite construction. We need to start manufacturing as soon as the ground is broken on site. To achieve that, detailed design information should be released to the manufacturing teams at a much earlier stage than with site-based construction — and that necessitates earlier decision-making on the part of the client.

BIM allows a building design to be co-ordinated in a more efficient way and facilitates better quality decisions earlier in a project. There is enhanced client engagement with the use of 3D models over 2D construction drawings. If we use data rich, fully detailed 3D BIM models and virtual reality walkthroughs, we can communicate a building design much more effectively. We can present design options for discussion with stakeholders and planning authorities that are easier to view, simpler to follow and revise at the earliest stage.

Advances in virtual reality (VR) have allowed us to put our clients into their ‘virtual home’ as part of the design process. They can feel and experience the living environment and are now able to validate instantly whether the layouts and design work for them.

Enlightened affordable housing providers

What we need now are more enlightened social housing providers, such as Clanmil Housing Association, with the passion and commitment to break the mould and apply new techniques to deliver growth. To help address the challenges around productivity, reliable delivery, quality and the affordability of new housing, developers in both public and private sectors should be willing to adopt more innovative building techniques. We will then be able to revive the ailing housebuilding sector.

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