Modern methods of learning: how are the builders of tomorrow learning about offsite construction?

VR, 3D, CAD, BIM and even 1990s gaming phenomenon Game Boy were just a few of the technologies featured in a panel discussion about the skills needed for the future of the construction sector

As residential developers juggle the promise and the challenging realities of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC), there is one common issue faced by all: a lack of knowledge and skills.

How are housing associations, consultants, training organisations and Homes England looking to attract and train new people, where the technical knowledge and practical skills needed to build the homes of the future could be radically different? Where will you, as a housing developer of the future, recruit or source the know-how necessary to adopt offsite construction?

Who is driving the desire to adopt MMC?

Until recently, the move towards MMC has been mostly driven by a few private developers and socially-minded housing providers choosing to explore the route of offsite construction. Motivations vary, depending on the genetic makeup of organisations. Not-for-profits squeezed by reduced central funding and rent caps sought new ways of working, generating their own income by becoming developers and seeking tight control on costs. Some explored joint ventures while others created their own supply-chains including in-house assets such as manufacturing facilities.

With central funding on the rise, Homes England is also encouraging the use of MMC by adapting the criteria in its land tender process. For example, Lucy Bleasdale, head of land for Homes England (Midlands), explained that a “70/30 price/quality” ratio had been changed to a “50/50” ratio in acknowledgement that bringing forward new methods and technologies cost more.

“The decision as to what degree of MMC and what methods are used is driven by soft market testing,” Lucy explained. “We don’t want to put out tenders that might not get interest when our priority is to deliver more homes.”

While early MMC sites have been described as “pilots”, Homes England expects offsite construction to be adopted more widely in its “mainstream” sites during the next 12 months.

Where are the skills coming from? The housing providers’ perspective

In the Midlands, Accord uses a mixture of on-the-job trainers and college courses, including local college Dudley College of Technology which has developed a 37,000sq ft facility for teaching building fabrication and assembly. Accord Chair Elisabeth Buggins CBE explained that the organisation sought to recruit local tenants where it could and had designed its own assessment programme to identify people that might fit. It has also developed a CAD design programme and through the use of technology, reduced a three-year training requirement to a more student-attractive 17 weeks.

In the south east, Swan develops through an in-house contractor using volumetric “modules” as well as traditional methods, and sometimes a mixture of the two within a development. Project Director Luke Riley split MMC into professional and non-professional, highlighting the need for better logistics for just-in-time supply and crane operators needed for heavy pods. He said architects that Swan worked with were starting to think more like “product designers” and re-evaluating their skills.

“Digital skills for manufacturing needs to get embedded in the school system and elsewhere,” he said. “Our system is about precision engineering and is designed for minimal tolerances. There’s a whole debate about ‘lean thinking’ but this is not across the industry yet.”

An approach from an offsite home manufacturer

Already armed with a range of MMC products, Ilke Homes developed its own academy to train people on how to build one of their houses. According to Learning and Development Manager Lisa Avins, recruits include not just young people in the early stages of their career but chefs, accountants and others looking for a career change. While having a trained workforce benefits Ilke directly, Lisa sees any training helping the sector in general.

“Apprenticeships are a huge arena to tap into, but if you’re like Ilke you cannot get an off-the-shelf apprenticeship for MMC,” she said. “So we need to take a unified approach to build this together, to build a product we can send out there, and to bring these skills to the sector.”

The view from a consultant and architect

Holly Porter wears two hats. As founding director of Surface to Air, she leads a specialist design team using MMC in the education, residential and build-to-rent sectors. As founder of the Chicks with Bricks network, set up to promote female talent in the property and construction industries, she can spread the word as to how MMC work practices might change the workforce demographic.

MMC methods, she believes, may help stop younger generations from “falling through the cracks”. Using MMC can break the “silo” trades, replacing independent working on “old-school construction sites” with collaborative working in office or factory environments, and more opportunities for consistent working hours or being able to set more flexible work patterns. In that way, Holly argues, MMC could attract a wider range of people to the sector.

Where else might the training come from?

While facilities like Dudley’s dedicated offsite build training centre are a long way from becoming commonplace, one organisation is working to set the educational agenda in MMC. The Ministry of Building, Innovation and Education (MOBIE) is not a Government department but a charity founded by architect and TV presenter George Clarke and includes MMC champion Mark Farmer on its team.

According to MOBIE CEO Mark Southgate, younger generations naturally show interest in home and the built environment because it is something they can relate to. “Somehow, the built environment professions have lost them by the time they leave school.” Of the traditional construction site, he added, “Millennials don’t want to go there, they want to use those design skills, they are intrinsically digital and design, and we’ve got to tap into that.”

MOBIE is working with schools and further education to develop education pathways, bringing together MMC and recognised qualifications such as BTECs, diplomas, undergraduate and post-graduate degrees, and even PhDs.

Does investing in MMC mean investing in training too?

For the time being, at least, it seems that any organisation looking to enter the MMC fray needs to consider training requirements. While Accord has developed a “pop-up” MMC factory other developers can use, developers still need a workforce proficient in erecting homes on site, even if the design and off-site assembly is handled by someone else.

Will MMC knowledge and skills truly take off with this generation of construction sector workers? Or if we still are waiting for a “tipping point”, will we know what that looks like when it arrives?

Every care was taken to ensure the information in this article was correct at the time of publication. For the most up to date LABC Warranty technical guidance please refer to your Risk Management Surveyor and the latest version of the LABC Warranty Technical Manual.

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