Nearly every country needs to build more homes to house growing populations. Research shows that England alone, for example, has a shortfall of 3.91 million homes; the UK government has set a new home building target of 300,000 a year until 2031. The current rate of new build is around 200,000. Industry and governments are looking to offsite modular construction, or factory-built housing, as part of the solution. Building homes in sections – fully plumbed and electrically fitted – in a factory and assembling them on site has several benefits including speed, productivity, workforce skills and cost. The bad image of 1950s’ cheap pre-fab homes in the UK and jerry-built housing in North America is largely forgotten, as technology has improved the quality of the latest “flat pack” buildings. In a June 2019 report, McKinsey said that modular construction in Europe and the United States could deliver annual savings of $22 billion. Offsite construction is a new, disruptive industry that’s primed for fast-tracking – but it has plenty of challenges, too.
Design, manufacturing and logistics: teething problems
Homebuilding is gradually moving from a centuries-old bricks and mortar, mud and boots paradigm to factory-built homes that are assembled in sections on site. That means the processes of making buildings work, developed over decades, will change wholesale. The “manufacturability” of these designs, delivering larger sections to sites in congested places, “plug and play” plumbing that snaps together but remains watertight, collectively present huge challenges for manufacturers.
Engineers are good at redesigning industrial systems. Digital tools like digital twins and BIM modelling help greatly, simulating new designs and failures before they are manufactured. Governments are spending innovation funding in this field.
Lead times, costs and carbon footprint
While the demand for housing is high, access to a reliable supply chain that can meet the output and standards required from todays’ building regulations and carbon neutral goals, presents a big challenge. While there are benefits in speed with onsite assembly, the costs of modular design and construction are currently around 40% higher than traditional builds.
The industry must work together to create solutions and skillsets that reduce manufacturing lead times, costs and carbon footprint. As an MES provider, LYNQ is well positioned and already collaborating with developers, architects, quantity surveyors and manufacturers to help meet these goals.
The scale of the housing shortfall
The UK alone has a housing deficit of 3 million homes, and the demand for housing is high in Japan, Australia, Singapore, Scandinavia, Switzerland and many other countries. England’s housing deficit requires building 1,000 homes a day for 10 years, according to research by Heriot-Watt University. Planning permission and speculative purchase of land by developers, who then choose to add to their ‘land banks’ rather than to build, compounds the problem in some countries.
A lean offsite manufacturing process is far faster than the equivalent building process onsite. This is due to the enclosed and controlled factory environment, the ability to coordinate and repeat activities, and increasing levels of automation. Source: McKinsey Report
The role of developers and competition for land
One of the biggest hurdles for building homes quickly is land availability and planning consent. These factors present greater hurdles than labour and skills, material costs, or even money. Big construction projects are invasive, noisy and take months, which are not popular with the constituents of local authorities, despite the upside of the new homes.
Offsite building manufacturers are collaborating with local authorities and housing associations. This helps provide a consistent and predictable pipeline. In the UK, Ilke Homes signed a £100m deal in May 2019 with Places for People housing association, to deliver 750 modular homes. The Netherlands’ land shortage has given rise to a growing ‘floating buildings’ sector, wherein buildings are completed in factories offsite and then towed to their destination.
The new system of home building is trying to get authorities and partners on side early.
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