The architecture surrounding the opportunities and risks of MMC

  • Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) is a phrase used to describe the use of contemporary building processes
  • Presently, many large-scale commercial new build developments and domestic properties are built using some elements of MMC
  • These approaches can provide a fast and cost effective alternative to traditional building methods.

Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) is a phrase used to describe the use of contemporary building processes, which differ significantly from conventional bricks and mortar construction capabilities.

Presently, many large-scale commercial new build developments and domestic properties are built using some elements of MMC. Furthermore, the term encompasses manufacturing techniques such as steel or pre-cast concrete frames, panellised units, modular buildings, insulated panels and timber frames. MMC sees an increasing number of pre-fabricated components manufactured in factories and assembled on-site.

These approaches can provide a fast and cost effective alternative to traditional building methods.

Fixing the UK housing crisis

Former Housing Secretary, Sajid Javid, cautioned local authorities that they could lose the right to rule on planning applications if they fail to meet house-building targets. A powerful warning which could mean wide-reaching implications. If local authorities fail to meet these targets, their right to rule on planning applications locally could be passed over to planning inspectors. Developers could also be denied planning permission if they take too long to build.

The government has pledged to build 250,000 homes by 2022, including homes for social rent. In addition, the housing and homelessness charity, Shelter, announced in a report inspired by the Grenfell Tower Fire that “1.2 million homes are needed for younger families who cannot afford to buy … and face a lifetime in expensive and insecure private renting”. Clearly the government needs a solution to achieve its targets and innovative techniques, such as using MMC, can provide a range of benefits particularly attractive to the social housing sector and local authorities looking to construct public buildings in the most efficient manner.

At Zurich, we understand that new projects are increasingly looking to such methods to contribute to the volume of housing needed and meet the latest standards on sustainability and environmental performance.

Implications of the risks surrounding MMC

In spite of these big ticket wins, are these theories backed up by data? Analysis of Zurich claims has provided positive identification of added risks – both during construction and throughout a building’s lifespan and there is an overall lack of understanding of the risks associated with MMC constructions or evidence to support the sustainability or longevity aspects of the argument.

One concern centres on the fear that developers might see modular structures as a solution to the housing crisis/targets. Modular buildings tend to be smarter at energy efficiency and deliver huge savings in terms of cost and time. But, there are questions as to whether they are as resilient as a conversional build or more likely to be affected by damp, which can cause alarming health problems for its inhabitants. There is also a widespread lack of understanding of how such properties respond to perils such as flood, fire and escape of water. This is something the industry needs to educate itself about.

MMC has enhanced efficiency and has helped to speed up the production of complex structures in shorter time periods. For example, a large number of structures you see built today are timber framed, meaning builders can manufacture the structure off-site and then move them to the building site. It is a highly efficient method that assists in reducing costs. Additionally, the use of thermally efficient polystyrene insulation panels, is frequently used in construction. However, the material can be combustible. Likewise, timber and fire are equally bad bedfellows. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the manufacturers to ensure regulations on the spread of fire and compartmentation and other fire safety measures are met.

Addressing the impacts and concerns

With all of this in mind, could the quality of housing be compromised in the rush to build homes more quickly? While initiatives that encourage further house building should be welcomed, we must ensure that we’re still building safe homes. A focus on build rates by local authorities and subsequently developers, must not amount to neglect. Building regulations should be met as the bare minimum.

A more sustainable way of improving the affordability of new-build homes would be for them to be sold more cheaply. One way of achieving this is to give homebuyers greater purchasing power, something that has been supported by low interest rates and via the government’s Help to Buy scheme. To allow more people to buy, more needs to be done in this area.

While MMC has undeniably interesting benefits – its risk remains challenging to assess. MMC techniques can assist in the long run, only if appropriate actions are taken to help mitigate the hazards. Turning to insurers such as Zurich, who keep their fingers on the pulse of the construction industry by talking to trade bodies and experts in the latest innovations, can lead to a better understanding of what risks might arise, as well as leaning on Zurich’s expertise of assessing MMC building risks.