Mark Farmer needs little introduction. His role in suggesting change and modernising the way the built environment is created has seen him become a major figure in the offsite sector. Offsite Hub caught up with him earlier in the year to talk about the state of the industry at the start of a new decade.
Q: Your recent appointment as MMC Champion is the latest move from Government in taking offsite manufacture seriously at the highest level – what is your vision for the role and what do you want to achieve? Does the post have a timeframe?
Mark Farmer (MF): To be honest, it is a formalisation of what I have been doing anyway for the last 3-4 years – acting as an advocate for change and to cause government and industry to reflect on what is an increasingly urgent need to reform how we design and construct buildings. The role has various components but primarily allows me to act as a bridge between government and industry and to advise on potential MMC-related policy interventions in the housing sector. There are lots of people in the sector with lots of opinions on what needs to change.
Part of my job will be to cut through the noise, understand the policy context and reality, including with other departments beyond MHCLG and prioritise activity that can be coordinated preferably at a national scale. The post is annually reviewed, and I know there will be a clear desire to make things happen within a parliamentary cycle for obvious reasons. I see the political focus on MMC at the moment as a real positive, but I also want to make sure we do not make short term decisions that ultimately hinder the development of a sustainable long term MMC market.
Q: The much publicised ‘presumption in favour of offsite’ by government departments seems to have stalled slightly – or at least been slow with contract awards. Are there any key reasons for this? How can this be improved/sped up?
MF: I think the press coverage recently on this has been hyped up by those looking for a story, but it is also fair to say that the industry is rightly looking at the government to lead by example. I know from my involvement with the government’s Smarter Infrastructure Working Group, which is responsible for co-ordinating via the IPA, the central government departments’ activity in this area, that a lot of work has been going on behind the scenes to ensure any move to MMC is scalable and sustainable. This starts with product definition, standardisation and data protocols. That work is time consuming but is progressing and the DfE are about to significantly disrupt the contracting market with major MMC-led frameworks for new school building.
I am under no illusions though that a wholesale re-education process also needs to start in central government as well as in local government and the private sector. Those responsible for procurement hold the keys to the transformation of how we deliver built assets. If we continue to buy on cheapest price and ask the wrong questions of the market, the ‘presumption in favour of offsite’ commitment will be meaningless. It is therefore important that the Construction Innovation Hub’s work to deliver an outcome-based procurement model mandated for employment by government is delivered as soon as possible. There may also be a need for other policy levers impacting procurement rules, building safety and carbon compliances to accelerate change.
Q: Where can the housebuilding industry truly improve in the way it designs and delivers newbuild developments to reflect changing demographics and need for future-proofed lifetime homes?
MF: It’s not for me to tell industry how to design its products but what is clear is that there is a growing feeling that the developer market’s focus on returns has led to question marks over the quality of build – technically, functionally and aesthetically. We need to re-focus on the consumer – i.e. the occupant and their needs. We need much better information on how buildings perform and are used – i.e. the much-vaunted post-occupancy evaluation that never seems to happen. The concept of adaptable buildings, with the ability to morph or be deconstructed, to enable people to either age in place or alternatively suit a wide range of lifestyles and different occupants is going to become increasingly important. The Planning system also needs to facilitate some of that change, including with a progressive approach to things like space standards, car parking and amenities policies. Despite a hope that our existing market will re-invent itself, I fear it will take outside disruption to improve the housing offer to UK consumers. I see that disruption coming from the technology world or from established international consumer centric manufactured homes players.
Q: Your 2016 publication ‘Modernise Or Die’ has now passed into construction folklore alongside John Egan and Michael Latham’s landmark publications – with some time since its publication and space for reflection – did you think it would resonate in the way it has? You must be very proud of it?
MF: I am indeed very proud of ‘Modernise or Die’. I re-read it for the first time recently and I think most of what it says still holds true. The government’s reaction to it has been heartening and has hopefully initiated a higher-level political discussion on the importance of construction to our economy than we have had for some time. It has also prompted a significant industry debate on what the future holds. No one can change the industry on the back of just writing a report, but I see the report as simply the beginning of a much broader change campaign, driving an ongoing debate that has caught attention and caused some to reflect. With external events such as Carillion’s failure, the Grenfell tragedy and the growing climate change agenda all adding to the mix, I feel it is indeed perhaps the time for industry to finally decide if can’t afford to just carry on doing the same thing.
Q: What progress has the offsite sector made since the publication of ‘Modernise or Die’ with its many recommendations for change? What can be done by the offsite construction sector to make it more of an attractive prospect to the wider specifier and client base?
MF: There has been a lot of activity in the offsite sector since 2016. Some notable heavyweight new entrants to the market bode well for the future, especially those which are design and technology led manufacturing platforms.
I am very lucky to be party to some of the innovation and market player developments that are still over the horizon to many and that makes me very hopeful we are going to see some dramatic changes ahead. However, there are still some structural failings that continue to dog the sector and need to be addressed if we are to move to a sustainable and fully functioning market. The biggest problem continues to be the transactional interface between the manufacturing supply side of the market and the land-led demand side of the equation. That interface continues to be plagued by lack of understanding and inappropriate procurement practices on the land-led client / client adviser side and by too much product variety, variable capability and often financial fragility on the supply side.
There is for this reason a disconnect between the potential and the reality of the offsite sector, especially in residential. As schools, hospitals and other infrastructure assets start to increasingly embrace MMC through the government procurement mandate, the question is whether the highly fragmented and private sector-led residential market can collaborate sufficiently on product and design standardisation, demand flow planning and investment and insurance standards to drive a new industrial strategy at a national scale. There will also be disruption of the disruptors as wholly new technology and manufacturing approaches make obsolete some investments made only a few years old.
I am afraid we will continue to see financial failures in the offsite world and many start-ups never getting off the ground. It is important we do not see technical failures as this will spook the market. That is why trust in the world of accreditations and funding needs to be hard won. The sector cannot afford for a systemic problem to arise out of a mad rush to move to offsite without technical robustness and assurance being put front and centre.
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