Modern methods of construction in a post-COVID world
This article was co-authored by Tegan Johnson, Solicitor Apprentice, Sheffield.
This article is the latest in a series focusing on modern methods of construction (MMC).
The world looks a little different since we wrote our introductory article about MMC back in March. Countries the world over have been significantly impacted by the novel coronavirus and have tried to prevent its spread through lockdown measures of varying degrees. Social distancing wasn’t even a thought in many of our minds until the proliferation of COVID-19.
But actually, COVID-19 may have helped the establishment of MMC. Where we noted previously that uptake was slow, this has gradually changed and may be because MMC is naturally well-suited to the new measures found on-site and in workplaces across the world.
MMC generally involves manufacturing and partial assembly in factories, and then transporting those constructed parts to the site to be installed. Factories are controlled environments: easily monitored, not only for quality of build but also generally for the welfare of employees and staff.
Enforcing social distancing and safe working practices such as use of PPE (personal protective equipment) is likely to be much easier along a conveyor system in a factory than it might be on site. Rather than a standardised process, working on-site features people of multiple trades required to work closely together at the same time.
When assembly is ongoing, projects which utilise MMC require fewer people on site, and less time spent there. Again, this reduction in numbers on site is also a requirement of the COVID-19 working guidelines, and MMC is therefore appropriate to that type of working environment. It sidesteps a number of the practical issues that developers may otherwise face.
Nobody knows how long we will be required to enforce social distancing measures in the workplace, but where projects are set to be delivered in the next few months and years, this is definitely an option that developers might now consider more strongly than before.
COVID-19 might also have an impact on MMC beyond simple uptake: currently, many modular builds are completed in factories in other countries, and transported to the UK for use. One consequence of the widespread lockdowns was a delay in the importing of materials and modules from other countries.
Many parts of the built environment expressed an interest in onshoring, including modular build factories. Onshoring in this context is transferring manufacturing operations from overseas to the country of use. Had production been situated in the UK, it is likely that there could have been less disruption to the supply chain during the initial coronavirus outbreak.
Looking forward, having production in the UK could in itself increase confidence in the use of MMC. For one, reducing the transportation mileage would decrease the risk of damage occurring during haulage. There would also be a huge benefit to the UK manufacturing industry, as well as the wider consequences of a move like this: investment in MMC, manufacturing and training and possible improvements in build quality.
Companies of all types have had to closely examine their operations over the past few months and innovate to deal with the ever changing situation. Generally, the pandemic has forced parties to work more collaboratively and communicate more effectively regarding ongoing and upcoming projects. If this ethos continues, not only are more parties going to consider MMC, but the process of designing and collaborating during the process will be smoother, thus diminishing the risk of design errors and disputes.
MMC does require strong collaboration – between parties of different disciplines and through the industry as a whole. Now that this has begun, we hope to see it continue and be utilised to bring about greater uptake. Where the public sector is encouraging use of MMC for homebuilding, we also expect an increase in use of MMC in other commercial construction builds.
Any increase in uptake of MMC will impact and be impacted by the provision of insurance. The more MMC is used, the more insurers will be able to accurately examine any risks involved. Factors such as onshoring may even reduce the level of risk.
All parties involved must ensure they are covered for the manufacturing process as well as the construction process and bear in mind the position under vesting certificates as well as any policy exclusions. However, in future, MMC-specific policies may become more commonplace and policy wording may change to improve the application of cover.
There is every chance that in a few years’ time, we will look back and see that the pandemic was a watershed moment for MMC. We strongly expect to see more investment, more willingness from companies to try using MMC and more confidence in the process. That may well include more uptake in MMC for other types of project, not limited to housebuilding as is often the stereotype.
This could be the opportunity that MMC has waited a decade for.
Related item: An introduction to modern methods of construction