Ahead of his talk at UK Construction Week – Is construction dead? – Matthew Lyons, Head of Design at the Orbit Group, explains why construction’s inability to deliver the homes we need has opened the door to a new breed of housebuilder.
If, like myself, you travelled up to Manchester to visit a certain housing exhibition this summer, you would have found it impossible to miss the modular buildings set up just outside the exhibition arena.
Buildsmart and Ilke had clearly meant to impress by exhibiting complete buildings! I liked the fact that Ilke had a video showing the process of erecting their semi-detached offering running in one of the homes. It was very impressive to see and clearly showed off the benefits offered by modular in building quickly.
In the main hall there were more modular products on show… Ideal Modular Homes, MOD Pods, Simply Modular, Elite Modular Systems… it seemed that every two metres there was another start-up, ready to impress with a great little product.
Why is this happening? Is it because construction is dying?
The emergence of all these upstart innovators is because there is a huge gap evident in the construction industry’s ability to build the homes we need, to the levels of quality customers expect.
The gap is huge, and it’s widening, watch out or it’ll gobble you up.
We hear lots of reasons why the construction industry is failing to respond to this obvious need… the skills aren’t available, there are material shortages etc. How has this happened, has the construction industry sleep walked its way into oblivion?
I don’t think that it’s as simple as that.
Complacency has a part to play, but the fact is that the recent financial crisis has dealt the industry a killer blow. Investment stopped, skilled labour was forced out of the industry to look for work in other areas. Investment in training dwindled, after all, why train people when you are laying people off? (The CITB admits it hasn’t been great at promoting construction as a long-term career option.)
Buy-to-let has helped to kick-start growth, but the shortage of skills is driving up wages. I have heard talk of bricklayers working on sites where they are being poached by other constructors on the same development. They walk over the road and get another £200 a week!
Berkeley Homes are looking at modular construction, having road-tested modular products recently, and are investing in a construction facility which is planned to deliver 1000 modular homes annually.
Urban Splash has a great housing product, which I was able to visit recently in New Islington in Manchester. Urban Splash secured the timber frame manufacturer SIG Building Systems to support their plans for ongoing construction.
The innovative off-site manufacturers are taking big risks, but how can they generate enough orders to fund their production facility? How can they grow quickly enough to fund their expansion? Most have a great product, but many will only deliver a handful of sites before their resources run dry.
At Orbit we’ve realised that the future is going to be about mixing manufacturing methods according to the site and project requirements. We’re trying to get our business set up to support a development programme which has a pipeline of housing products, delivered to support the requirements of a manufacturer, and keep them afloat. Traditional construction will always be there, but it’s viability will reduce, so it will only be used in particular circumstances where off-site products don’t work.
We think that’s the future of construction... maybe it’s not dead, but it’s certainly slowed down a bit.
For more on the future of housing manufacture and what needs to be done to resolve the housing crisis, Join Matthew at UK Construction Week on Thursday 11 October.
Matthew Lyons is the Head of Design Standards for Orbit, one of the largest developing Housing Associations in the UK. Matt joined Orbit following a career in retail property design having worked as Head of 3D Design for Boots the Chemist and as Head of Superstore Design for Tesco. Trained initially as an Industrial Designer, Matt has worked in design and manufacturing for over twenty years.