What can the UK Residential Sector learn from other countries?

What can the UK Residential Sector learn from other countries in terms of delivery, product and perception?

As we gear up for our Residential MMC (Modern Methods of Construction), conference on 12th October, we had the opportunity to interview Ele George. She is the chair for the event and the Founding Director of Elevate.

Ele George is an Engineer with a passion for all things innovative. As a long-time ‘MMC’ evangelist and award-winning sustainability leader, Ele advocates that holistic system-thinking based approaches to design, development, manufacturing and construction are the answer. After two decades of experience specialising in sustainable construction, and in the belief that we need to build in a better way, Ele founded built environment consultancy, Elevate, in 2021. Elevate aims to tackle challenges facing the sector including poor productivity, lack of technological adoption, skills shortage, and the climate emergency. Her current clients allow her to work with a wide range of stakeholders to develop sustainable innovative solutions.


What are the most significant benefits of adopting MMC in the UK?

Before we look at this, there is a massive caveat that just because you adopt MMC doesn’t mean you’re going to achieve the benefits of MMC. It needs deploying correctly. A key way to do this is to engage with the main contractor and supply chain early on in the process. By doing this you can clearly scope responsibilities and discuss expertise, ensuring that deployment has the best possible chance of success. If this process is adhered to, the benefits include an increase in speed of delivery, safety and arguably the most significant – a measurable environmental and sustainability impact.

One less well-documented benefit (which will be also covered at the conference) is the increase of social value. Examples of this include offering people with disabilities employment in factories, or shift patterns for those with caring commitments. These are just 2 small examples, the potential for additional social value is huge.

Finally, when there is more data available, we should see that the building performance of MMC is much higher than traditional methods.


What is at the cutting edge of product and technology?

There are so many amazing innovations in this sector. Things like AI and robots are one end of the spectrum where we’re seeing innovation that includes generating and building components for homes. We’re also seeing fully 3D printed homes!

Collaboration is the most important, and exciting, element here. The people at the cutting edge are collaborating with competitors so that they can offer an increasing number of products, focused on where their expertise lies. People are looking for solutions that are interoperable so by collaborating, risk is diluted and the possibility for growth is amplified.


Why is the UK behind?

We’re not necessarily behind overall, in fact we’re ahead in some areas.

We are behind some of our European counterparts with our approach to embodied carbon and bio-based materials. For example, we’ve seen an increased drive in European and North American markets to develop capabilities for using materials such as straw, and timber to good effect.

In the UK we’re not thinking about this enough. 

In London, for instance, there’s (understandably) a lot of mistrust about using timber but there needn’t be. Of course, there’s a place for steel and concrete, but there are other materials that we need to consider such as cork, hemp and bamboo, and other countries are leading the sector with this way of thinking. The regulatory landscape in the UK still favours tried and tested carbon-intensive materials, making the use of bio-based materials more complex and expensive. This is disincentivising innovation and use despite demand for lower carbon products obviously increasing. The French government has established legislation requiring all new public buildings to be built from at least 50% bio-based materials from 2024.

France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands are using manufactured panel systems for multiple types of projects including schools and residential schemes. They’re even using the same components for retrofitting. We are still developing this option in the UK, currently.

We are ahead of the curve with our strategic policy making and planning and our approach to adopting DfMA, platforms and digital twins (which I will come to in a moment). The UK developed the MMC definition framework, which has now been adopted by a number of countries across Europe, and including even further afield in Australia and New Zealand.


Who’s ahead of the curve with MMC?

Those thinking about “kit of parts” – instead of only thinking about a large format panels and modules, it’s parts that can come together to form the overall solution. This is where collaboration is so vital. By creating kit that can be used in conjunction with other components, MMC can be viewed more holistically, creating better end products. We’re not quite there yet but there are companies leading the way. Those that are prepared to create kits that works with other solutions are the ones that are going to succeed.


Why is MMC so important for retrofit as well as new build, and why does this element sometimes get forgotten?

I’ve spent two decades in the new build arena so I’m guilty of focusing on them historically, but over the last two years I’ve been focusing on retrofit – taking lessons from new build to retrofit. There’s a massive impact from older buildings on the environment and people’s health and wellbeing. We need to retrofit 28 million homes by 2050 if we’re going to hit net zero. (UKGBC)

On top of this, with the cost-of-living crisis people have, rightly, been looking at their energy bills more, so retrofitting is of crucial importance. Money isn’t the only concern that people have. We’ve become increasingly aware of health and wellbeing, with a particular focus on air quality at home (which also has a financial impact on the NHS). By retrofitting homes people will save money and improve their wellbeing.

Embodied carbon would also be lower as those houses are already built and don’t need demolishing and starting again, which is a huge plus for the environment. Retrofit might not be the most popular choice, especially when compared to the allure of a brand-new building. However, its benefits are profound. Not only can it significantly lower energy costs and transform homes into comfortable, healthy spaces as mentioned earlier, but it also has the potential to uplift entire communities without the need for displacement that comes with demolition.

Due to the significant contribution that the embodied carbon of buildings makes to the climate emergency, there is a need to introduce legislation towards mandatory reporting of carbon emissions in the built environment, along with limiting embodied carbon emissions on projects.  

The introduction of Part Z, legislation that mandates the reporting of (and set limits on) embodied carbon emissions in the built environment, will help to focus the attitudes away from preference for new build and onto retrofitting (where this is a viable option). Such regulations becoming a legal requirement as part of Building Regulations will help to ensure that everyone plays by the same ‘sustainability’ rules. This is to ensure that the whole impact of a building is accounted for and we have clear and measurable ways of achieving the emissions reductions needed to get to net zero.


What’s missing from the MMC framework?

A key part of MMC is offsite construction of modules, panels and components as described in the MMC definition framework, but there’s so much more to ‘MMC’ than that.  For example, DfMA or design for manufacturing assembly (and disassembly) is about embedding efficiency throughout a product’s life-cycle, including design, production/manufacturing process, transportation to site and assembly on site. Platform approaches apply DfMA principles to offer interoperable, repeatable common components.

We need to be more productive with both our design and construction processes. We don’t need to keep reinventing the wheel to make MMC work. By making a lean, repeatable process costs will be kept low and the chance of hitting net zero is increased.

Overarching all of this is a digitalised approach containing the vital golden thread of information that is needed to ensure the building is designed, built, used, and maintained (and eventually deconstructed) in a safe, sustainable, and cost-effective way. Digital twins are transforming the way we design, operate, and experience buildings. Leveraging real-time data analytics of user-behaviour, interactive simulations, and predictive capabilities, digital twins allow building users to optimise building performance, enhance user experiences and create sustainable, future-proof and resilient spaces.

In my opinion, 'MMC' isn't complete without integrating digital transformation. Every building should come with its unique data set or a 'building passport' to optimise its use.


Any final thoughts?

We need to adopt MMC through a systems-thinking lens. There are multiple problems that all need to be addressed at once and we need to be mindful that we’re not trying to solve one issue to the detriment of another. By taking a holistic, collaborative approach we are more likely to solve, or at least address, wicked problems like our aging housing stock, pressurised NHS, the skills shortage and the climate and biodiversity crises.

To learn more about MMC, view our dedicated site and book your ticket to our Residential MMC conference here.