MOBIE was founded in 2017 by the architect and TV presenter George Clarke and is driving the future of home design. Chief Executive, Mark Southgate, talked to us about how it is radically improving the way we construct – and increasingly manufacture – homes in the UK.
Q: MOBIE has aspirational and ambitious long-term aims – for those unfamiliar, can you say a little about the background to its formation and its team?
Mark Southgate (MS): The home is the most important piece of architecture in our lives and at the Ministry of Building Innovation and Education (MOBIE), we want to raise design standards, build quality and introduce innovation in homebuilding. To do this we want to inspire the next generation to join the industry and drive the change we need, through a different way of thinking and doing. MOBIE engages with young people from primary school to university through our design challenges and with education partners we have created new courses 1 in home design and manufacture from BTEC to PhD. Through our Homes for the Future Innovation Centre with Northumbria University, we are helping to bring much needed research and development and innovation to the housing sector.
Q: You have created a unique ‘educational pathway’ that will hopefully provide a new generation of professionals working across the built environment – what does this pathway entail?
MS: We believe it is for tomorrow’s generation to define how they want to live. Working with our education partners we have created new modules and courses at BTEC, Nationals Certificate and Diploma, Bachelors, Masters and PhD. They focus on a different approach to home design and manufacture, with topics such as digital design, new technology and materials, new processes and offsite methods, sustainability and alternative energy. We want to attract and nurture a new cohort of designers, makers, developers, planners and surveyors to enter and reshape the housing industry, to help to deliver our most important buildings better, more sustainably and more affordably. We want them to have a broad understanding of the built environment and through the courses discover the right professional discipline for them.
Q: There is a lot of talk of ‘disruption’ across the construction sector, with tech-driven start-ups appearing regularly – does MOBIE see itself as part of this disruptive change to the norm?
Mark Southgate (MS): Yes, MOBIE sees itself as disruptors, but disruptors for a reason. The way we build homes has hardly changed in the last 100 years. We need to change the way we build houses, so they better meet the needs of their occupiers, and they reduce their impact on the environment. We can do this by adopting more digital approaches and applying manufacturing thinking. We also need to change to attract our future home creators to the industry – we have a big attractiveness problem in the industry with not enough young people wanting to join. But by utilising new approaches and technology this will help make us a more attractive proposition to new entrants, and importantly help retain workers we already have and help them get more from working in the industry.
Q: What feedback have you had from the course options so far and initial intake of students?
MS: We started with the MSc at Teesside University, Advance Home Futures. We have since added a distance learning MSc at the University of Wolverhampton, Offsite Housing Construction, and Bachelors’ at Teesside, Innovative Home Design and Construction, and Birmingham City University, Design for Future Living and are working with more universities to develop new courses. Our first graduates were from the Teesside MSc in 2019, followed by a second cohort in 2020. We are delighted that many have found employment with housebuilders using modern methods of construction (MMC) and other built environment practices where they can play an active part in shaping and changing the future of the homebuilding industry. That’s what we wanted them to do, and we are pleased they are finding companies and roles where they are being asked to do this. All our graduates and challenge winners become part of the MOBIE community that is shaping the future of the industry.”
Q: The ‘traditional’ way of housebuilding construction – ostensibly brick and block and site-based operations – is increasingly being seen as outdated, with offsite construction, DfMA and factory-based methods moving ‘manufacturing and construction’ closer together – is that fair to say from your perspective?
MS: Whilst we have seen dramatic technological and productivity changes in other sectors, housebuilding has hardly shifted the dial. Unfortunately, this is reflected in the product – the ‘snagging’ lists of faults for new homes can be enormous. You just do not see that in other manufacturing environments. We need to improve our product, to make our homes more efficient, adaptable and sustainable and to better meet people’s needs. Adopting manufacturing process thinking and techniques can help us improve homes by reducing waste, reducing their environmental and climate impact and improving the build quality of the product. We will still build homes using bricks and mortar, but manufacturing be it components of homes or whole houses – will continue to grow and become an ever-larger part of the market. Consultancies such as Savills and McKinsey predict that MMC homes could make up 20% of homes built in the UK each year by the end of this decade.
Q: How integral to the future of homebuilding is the understanding and use of digital tools and technology to develop energy efficient new homes and a cleaner industry?
MS: Homebuilding has been slow on the digital uptake, but a revolution is coming. The future of construction is digital, and the approach marries well with MMC. In a manufactured environment, the product delivered should be as per its ‘digital twin’, but on many traditional sites where ‘workarounds’ are necessary we know this is not the case. Digital design can help maximise energy and environmental efficiency and reduce waste. Where the manufactured house mirrors the digital design, then maintenance and repair become so much easier – this is very attractive to organisations who retain and maintain houses once built, such as Registered Social Landlords. Using digital tools in the design of homes will make the industry more attractive to a new workforce that thinks and operates digitally. It could even help in fields such as planning where you can more easily show affected communities the nature and impact of proposed new development. Frankly, as an industry that produces a 3D product, it amazes me how slow we have been to adopt 3D design representation and techniques – digital capabilities must be a fundamental skill for the future and they a core part of our training.
Q: Carbon reduction is now a constant topic of discussion – how can we best marry together the ‘efficient and the ecological’ to secure the 2030 and 2050 net zero targets?
MS: Climate change matters to young people, as they will have to live with the consequences. We see this all the time in their designs for our challenges. They want to live in low, and preferably zero, carbon homes. We need to provide them with those homes, and we need to train them how to create them, so low carbon housing is a key part of MOBIE courses. 40% of our carbon emissions come from the built environment – be it embodied energy in their creation, or operational energy used to heat and run the home. We can already build zero carbon homes, so we need to share the knowledge on how best to do this and adopt it at scale. We will also need to retrofit between 27 and 29 million existing homes in the UK to deliver on our zero carbon commitments. Delivering effective retrofit training is essential. MOBIE is a member of the skills group of the Optimised Retrofit programme in Wales and we are working on how best to create and deliver such training.
Q: Many industry reviews focus on increasing housing numbers, declining skills, an ageing workforce, low productivity levels and variable quality of finished product – how can MOBIE help?
MS: That is why MOBIE was formed in the first place – we started MOBIE to create a generational shift. MOBIE will help inspire and attract a new generation of talented young people to join the built environment and housebuilding industries to secure their future and drive necessary change. We will train them with the skills they need to improve our product and the industry’s productivity, including though use of digital skills and manufacturing approaches. I chair the Offsite Alliance Skills Group and we are identifying the skills that the MMC sector needs to deliver a higher quality product and how best to deliver them.
Q: Earlier this year the ‘House iO’ competition asked architectural students from University of West England (UWE) to form teams, to design a prefabricated housing scheme – what kind of schemes were proposed?
MS: The competition asked architectural student teams from UWE to design a prefabricated housing scheme to address homelessness in Bristol, using Totally Modular’s House IO system – volumetric modular homes built to near carbon zero standards. The students could choose from three sites allocated for housing in the city. The challenge attracted entries from first year to final year students, who enjoyed tackling a real-life brief and acting as design teams working under pressure to deliver their proposals in under a week. The teams created a range of sensitive, well-researched and well-argued proposals for their sites. The winning entry utilised the layout of their site to create blocks and clusters of modular housing with retained trees and communal spaces that provided both quality shared space and privacy. It was a high-quality housing scheme designed with great thought about the needs of its users.
Q: The Mayor of London is partnering with MOBIE to launch a design challenge for young Londoners this Autumn – what is this all about?
MS: Design Future London is our latest place making and design challenge for 11- to 25-year-old Londoners. It was launched at London Build on 18 November and runs until 6 May 2022. We are asking young Londoners to design an innovative and inspirational green home and urban neighbourhood in the Royal Docks, East London. The home and neighbourhood designs should address four key priorities central to London’s recovery from COVID-19: making places, sustainable transport, building housing, addressing climate change and providing green energy for London. They should meet the changing needs of future generations of Londoners, including promoting wellbeing, quality of life and healthy living. The challenge is free to enter. We hope that it will inspire a new generation to learn about the built environment and bring learning in subjects like geography, history and design and technology to life. The challenge will also introduce young people to the built environment sector and the variety of jobs – from planning and architecture to engineering and construction – that exist and employ nearly 10% of the UK workforce.
To read the full article, go to Offsite Magazine