Modular housing construction

14 September 2020

The five major challenges facing UK modular construction

There’s no question that the modular construction industry in the UK faces a number of significant challenges. From the reluctance to adopt this ‘new’ construction method, to the current COVID-19 pandemic and its profound impact on all aspects of the industry, in this blog we discuss the five most prevalent threats experienced by the modular construction today.

Challenge #1: Coronavirus  

The COVID-19 pandemic has delivered a heavy blow to the UK construction industry. During the initial phases, we saw construction sites close and jobs cut across the country. Work in the sector slowed and overall activity fell to an extent not seen since April 2009 [1]. Now, as we begin to recover, the coronavirus pandemic has forced a rethink of the way that buildings are designed and built. 

As we return to the ‘new normal’, there is one area where there is widespread agreement: social distancing measures are here to stay, in the short term at least. While they’re designed to minimise the spread of the virus, they pose a number of issues when it comes to construction.  

In order to operate effectively while maintaining social distance, developers need to reduce their reliance on labour-intensive traditional construction and look to new methods. There is a real opportunity here for modular construction to offer a solution.  

Modular construction requires much less manual labour, making it easier to ensure safer social distancing. The factories also offer health and safety benefits because they are controlled environments where order and process take precedence. Modular construction is also up to 50% quicker when compared to traditional processes, with buildings created in around four weeks. This quick turnaround time is key for helping the construction industry offset delays in project timelines.  

With the impact of coronavirus threatening the future of the UK construction industry, the challenge now is to encourage widespread of modular construction. This will help to get the industry back on its feet and push forward with new developments.  

Challenge #2: Reluctance to adapt to change 

Construction is a hugely traditional industry and change is often approached with a level of skepticism. For years, developers have remained on the fence when it comes to modular buildings, meaning uptake has been slow.  

However, we are now seeing a shift in attitude when it comes to offsite building techniques, largely driven by an increased awareness of the time and cost-saving benefits. This in turn is leading to an increase in adoption. According to Forbes, 7.5% of the homes built in the UK in 2017/18 were modular and increased growth is expected for 2020 [2]. The need for new, affordable homes isn’t going away and modular construction offers a solution.  

Challenge #3: Skills shortage  

The skills shortage is an ongoing issue across the construction industry and is made more acute by Brexit uncertainty and new technology. Across traditional construction, there’s a real shortage of bricklayers, carpenters, electricians and plumbers, with demand continuing to outstrip supply.  

The different skillset required for modular construction means there is a real opportunity to tackle the housing crisis without increasing the pressure on these more traditional trades. Within offsite construction, there’s a demand for specialised engineers, architects and contractors that are familiar with the intricacies of modular fabrication and the erection stages of a build. Increased education and outreach are crucial if we’re to impress the importance of modular buildings and encourage uptake of these roles.  

Challenge #4: Renewed focus on quality and regulation

Following the Grenfell tragedy, there is quite rightly a renewed focus on the quality of materials and the processes involved in creating buildings. Again, this is where modular construction can offer some much-needed assurances, chief of which being that the supply chain needs to be much more connected with modular builds. Not only does this ensure smooth delivery within a tight timeframe, but it also limits the opportunities for materials to be spec’d out and allows for a high level of accountability throughout the build process. 

Challenge #5: Climate change and sustainability

Although other issues have dominated the headlines of late, there’s no escaping the fact that we’re still tackling a climate emergency and sustainability remains a key concern across the built environment. Buildings and the materials used in their construction account for a large proportion of energy consumption in the UK.  
Compared to a traditionally built project, up to 67% less energy is required to produce a modular build [3]. In addition, not only is the actual construction ‘greener’, but more modular builds are now being installed with energy-efficient systems such as solar panels and energy-efficient glass. Offsite construction also has a positive impact on the carbon footprint of the building as it allows for a reduction in the total number of deliveries to sites by 90% [3].  

Although there are a number of big challenges facing modular construction, there’s no doubt that it’s time to readdress how things are done. In light of the global crisis, it is now more important than ever for the industry makes the changes that are needed to make a strong recovery and futureproof the sector. 

1 Scottish Construction Now
2 PBC Today
3 Actavo
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