COVID-19 Pandemic to Supercharge the Use of MMC in Commercial Projects

Modern methods of construction (MMC) represents the future of the industry and has never been more vital – COVID-19 has impacted the industry and its prospects, while productivity, lagging before the pandemic, must be ramped up. The UK is also targeting ambitious sustainability targets, with construction playing a key role in driving emissions down. MMC is key to both our post-pandemic recovery and success in meeting sustainability goals, explains Mark Lowry, CEO at The McAvoy Group.

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The Government has been a vocal proponent for the increased use of MMC, but more policy direction is needed in order to deliver the transformation we need in the commercial sector.

The public sector – particularly education and healthcare – has adopted MMC more readily and on a much greater scale, with a large proportion of new buildings now delivered wholly offsite or in part. In contrast, commercial projects have seen a much slower adoption of MMC. Often, lenders and investors take a conservative approach to building techniques, conjuring a misguided and incorrect correlation between the speed of delivery and quality.

There is a huge amount of innovation and R&D taking place within the offsite sector – the industry is constantly pushing the boundaries on what is possible, honing existing processes and improving new techniques, supported by cutting-edge digital tools and technology.

Our business is focused heavily on supporting innovation and collaborating on learnings, even with competitors. The Seismic Consortium is an excellent example of what can be achieved via collaboration and sharing of expertise – the first project transformed the way education projects are delivered; learnings which can now be applied to commercial projects.

The fact is, countless commercial projects could be delivered more efficiently, more quickly and at less cost – and to the same standard of design and build – using offsite techniques.

Yet, while the benefits of offsite are proven, it is often still considered a radical approach.

There is undoubtedly a job to be done in making sure that offsite is at least considered for every project – even if traditional methods are subsequently deemed more appropriate.

While the pandemic has created significant difficulties for the construction industry, resulting in site closures and increased build timelines due to social distancing and workforce pressures, I expect that the recovery process will support the MMC agenda, with growing uptake in offsite for commercial projects.

A recent survey carried out by Gleeds revealed that 65% of contractors plan to incorporate a greater percentage of MMC into their projects as a result of the pandemic.

From a practical perspective, offsite allows contractors to limit the number of people on site at one time, not only during the build phase but also during the fit-out work, with individual modules arriving complete with M&E and, in some cases, even furniture and fixings.

The speed of delivery will also be an even greater consideration, with many projects already delayed due to the onset of the pandemic. The use of offsite allows a significant amount of time to be shaved off the construction timeline – it can often be reduced by up to 50%.

MMC is also a real benefit on tight city-centre sites, where social distancing is not the only concern, but also the impact on traffic and pedestrian thoroughfares. By using offsite, the reduction of disruption will be a significant benefit for numerous stakeholders.

Beside the project benefits of MMC, we also need to look at the bigger picture – there’s no getting away from the fact that the construction industry is a major contributor to UK carbon emissions and the Government has committed to achieving zero-carbon status by 2050.

MMC will be key to reducing our emissions – not only in reducing the transport of materials to and from sites, but in the way buildings are designed and built. Research from the Seismic Consortium found that schools can be delivered with up to 50% lower emissions – those same learnings can be transferred to the commercial sector.

As the construction sector recovers from the pandemic, efficiency, productivity and quality are more important than ever – it’s important that the benefits of MMC and offsite technology are understood and considered as the first port of call. With just 29 years to achieve zero-carbon status, there is a great deal of work to be done, with construction leading the way.

While the impact of the pandemic on the construction industry has been significant, it has placed the importance of MMC in sharp relief – it may well prove to be the shock the industry needs to transform the way buildings are designed and delivered, instead of simply relying on traditional construction methods simply because that is what has always been done.

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