Offsite: Not the panacea?

The Government is making a big push for modern methods of construction as part of the solution to the housing crisis. While offsite has a key role in the market, it might not be the panacea many hope it to be, according to Chris Stanley of The Concrete Block Association.

This will come as nothing new to readers of Housebuilder & Developer, but there’s no ambiguity about the fact the UK is in the grips of a housing crisis, and the need for increasing the number of new starts is pressing.

Back in November 2017 Philip Hammond announced the new targets. He himself admitted there would not be one magic bullet to solve the problem, implying that everyone across the housebuilding sector would have to pull together.

As such, you would have thought the approach would be to inspire hearts and minds across the whole construction indus- try, yet the Government’s actions suggest otherwise. While we’re falling short of meeting those targets (300,000 new starts a year), there is a concerted push for one type of construction in favour of others, namely offsite.

While offsite is among the range of systems we have at our disposal, it is not the definitive answer to current problems. In my view it’s inefficient and misguided to put all our eggs in one basket.

Out of proportion

Plenty of media excitement exists around modular housing, but arguably the only reason this type of construction method is receiving so much attention is because of favourable Government funding schemes.

There are some short-term benefits to building modular homes, which is why the Government has aggressively backed it as a construction method. It can reduce labour requirements and limit onsite activities, but investing in offsite manufacturing is still at an early stage and investment costs are high.

The Government could be said to be twisting the arm of the developers, promising funding with the caveat that it must be spent on modular.

Companies such as Ilke Homes and Project Etopia claim to be able to produce 2,000 units a year (or, 18 a day) – but we are yet to see evidence to back this up.

To offer some context, by comparison around 85 per cent of new build housing is currently achieved with masonry construction. The sector, as it stands, is more than

capable of absorbing the 85 per cent of the current shortfall (80,000). Furthermore, concrete block production for example is not at high risk with regards to Brexit, as most of the constituents are sourced within the UK and blocks are manufactured and delivered regionally.

New is not always progress

Traditional forms of construction are considered to be ‘untrendy,’and therefore are underrepresented in design programmes on national TV. These shows prefer to bestow screen time on ‘fashionable’ methods such as steel frames, timber cladding and quirky things such as hemp insulation. We have a tendency to believe that progress is linear, and to assume that things are better simply for the fact of being new. This is just one of a whole host of misconceptions which urgently need to be overturned.

Masonry has been the primary building material for the majority of our houses for centuries. If you look at the Peabody and Guinness Trust estates from the Victorian/Edwardian era, they are still standing and still occupied. They have also become the fabric of our neighbour- hoods – a particularly iconic one, the Boundary Estate in London, is a great example.

In contrast, most of the post-war construction boom modular dwellings, such as the Airey houses from the 50s and 60s, are no longer inhabitable – however, I’m by no means suggesting that techniques haven’t evolved since.

We should be careful not to repeat past mistakes – that is, cutting corners because of a push to achieve results now. We need to be building for longevity, which is true sustainability. The speed at which we need to build requires traditional onsite methods to keep making use of the years of accrued skills and utilising readily available products.

The difference is blurred

Indeed, evidence from Arup in the Government’s 2018 report,‘Building for Change’, suggests modular requires the creation of a new‘ manu-construction’ workforce, not a reskilling of the existing construction workforce. Why focus on a method that necessitates spending such time and resources, when most of our labour know how to build traditionally?

The debate of onsite versus offsite is something of a red herring. Construction types can be said to always be hybrid to an extent. Labour will always be needed for assembly onsite, even if modular homes are produced in a factory before being ferried onsite.

We all know that when you start digging, you uncover unexpected things, no matter how many tests you’ve done in advance – stuff happens, spontaneously. With a concrete block, you can be flexible and reactive. If you come across a Victorian water main while excavating, you can shift your footing ever-so-slightly, but you can’t do that with factory-made modules.

The housebuilding sector is and should be diverse, and there should be room for both onsite and offsite to receive funding to create a level of parity. As with any complex problem, there is no easy fix. There is a need to look at different build methods, but let’s not focus all our attention on this debate. As outlined in ‘Building for Change’, there are bigger issues to address: the out-dated business model of the indus- try as whole, and our lacking infrastructure.

Chris Stanley is housing manager at The Concrete Block Association