The NHBC has a long history of working with the housebuilding industry to raise the standards of new homes and to provide protection for homebuyers through its warranty and insurance schemes. It recently hosted a Roundtable Event to discuss future housing challenges and the role of offsite manufacture. Gary Ramsay reports on the key points.
The necessity to raise the number of homes being built across the UK is well understood. But just as critical is the need to raise the quality standard of the nation's housing stock. It is here that offsite manufacture is progressively being seen as an opportunity to change the processes behind building and delivering new homes. Certainly with the endorsement of central Government and the London Assembly in particular over 2017, scalable offsite methods of manufacture are being taken far more seriously and potentially the ideal solution for social housing and the Private Rented Sector (PRS) boom.
For the NHBC, these new and emerging offsite systems, components and building technologies are increasingly of interest but need to be understood better to be given the final stamp of approval and guarantee of quality. Although offsite is standard practice for some, many are travelling a steep learning curve with a vast knowledge gap between wanting to adopt offsite and actually using it correctly. Barriers do remain - whether resting in perception issues of the 'prefab' past or the vagaries of land availability and planning consent to the more esoteric appreciation of visual appeal and sense of place.
A minor revolution is happening. One year on from the Housing White Paper published in February 2017- Fixing our Broken Housing Market - that recognised that change is a necessity and promised a broad range of 'radical, lasting reform' on the ways homes are delivered. It would seem that the climate is right to encourage a wider range of clients, developers and supply chain participants into the housing market. "We can overestimate the government's ability to exert change," says Adam Challis, Head of Residential Research at JLL. "But as an industry we now have a real opportunity to pick up the mantle laid down by the White Paper in recognising and demonstrating that offsite solutions can align with policy priorities on quality and quantity."
Most agree that that the White Paper is ostensibly a worthwhile document and a genuine attempt to tackle a possibly unsolvable problem in upping housing numbers. However, Government upheaval, the snap spring 2017 General Election and the paralysing Brexit negotiations have meant that enthusiasm has stalled. The lack of progress from the Homes & Communities Agency (HCA) and the Accelerated Construction Fund is frustrating and the hope is that Alok Sharma, the new Minister for Housing and Planning will provide some fresh impetus.
"The White Paper was good news," says Peter Andrew, Deputy Chairman, Home Builders Federation (HBF). "But offsite is just a part of a suite of answers. For the major housebuilders it is an incremental move forward. All the major players are aware of offsite and are starting to create some volume but it is through a careful, strategised approach. The important point is that everyone needs to make sure that there is no legacy issues surrounding quality."
Keep the Customer Satisfied
There is now a consistent assortment of project examples showcasing the quality of offsite manufacture. The hoUSe concept by Urban Splash has caught imaginations and is changing perceptions - critically at the wider consumer level. The negative 'brand association' of prefabrication is being quickly erased. "It's not an issue within our space," adds Adam Challis. "The industry is further forward now. But the fact that hoUSe has been built in a factory is irrelevant to the vast majority of the occupiers - it's all about the engagement with the design, layout and flexibility of the home." Indeed, for many people this choice and involvement in the building process is as close to building their own home as many will get.
So not enough is perhaps made of what the consumer actually wants - the customer experience. Albeit they may not be overly bothered about what is behind the walls, but nobody can argue with affordability, value for money and the chance to have a hand in developing your own home. "We are in the age of the connected customer," says Brendan Geraghty, Director at Geraghty Taylor. "We need to develop and maintain a relationship with the customer. We need to ask the market what it wants as the choices and ways to personalise are massive and will increase." To maintain a happy customer the service delivery also needs to be better. Increased demand and innovation in offsite homes is going to come through customer satisfaction more than policy developments or even huge technical advances. Some simple answers rest in a clear, predictable offsite supply chain.
Capacity & Design
If the UK is to solve its housing crisis - which could take decades - planning rules and the way consent is granted will have to change and relax. Local authorities have a major role to play here to enact reform and encourage more building - of all typologies - to occur. Local authorities can effectively become the 'commissioners of housing'. Something that they used to do very well but is a function that has virtually ceased to exist. Local authorities and housing associations can play a huge role to act as a 'disrupter to traditional building' and deliver better homes for their tenants. "There is an important public sector role in planning thinking," says Will Cousins, Chairman, David Lock Associates. "The Village and Garden Town plans are interesting. The Government has a role to play in placemaking and ensuring public land gets to market and allows development to happen. The policy conditions are there and are pro-offsite."
More housing developments means more manufacturing - can the offsite industry keep up and cope with clients with big ambitions? What is required is firm commitment from clients, developers and housebuilders to an offsite pipeline. This commitment creates the confidence and ultimately drives capacity increase. "I have the capacity but I also need the demand, says Alex Goodfellow, Group Managing Director for Stewart Milne Timber Systems. "We are probably operating at about 60% capacity and have a great deal of flexibility. The problem isn't to produce more items or to procure more raw material or even employ more people - it's the demand side. Logistics and pipelines have to be committed so we manufacturers can invest in confidence."
A common talking point is where the role of the architect and building designer sits within offsite design and the where the creative edge rests. Thinking 'beyond the box'. The retirement living sector has huge potential for offsite thinking and creative flair with customisable lifetime homes with flexible internal layouts set to play a major role in future-proofing housing. Being more visual and making developments contextual that feel integral to where they are built and blend in is important. The problem is whether there is enough knowledge in the design market to understand what offsite actually can offer and deliver on this front. Endless issues arise from buildings being designed as 'traditional' then often retrospectively applying an offsite solution thereby losing the many potential gains of factory controlled manufacture and the original design ethos.
Performance & Accreditation
NHBC have been witnessing an upsurge of interest in offsite construction with increasing numbers of systems and components being put forward for assessment against the NHBC Standards. The future for offsite success rests in the ability for homes and their constituent parts and components to be designed, manufactured and constructed to reliably meet performance and assurance standards over many decades, satisfying the needs of home and asset owners, investors and mortgage lenders.
NHBC Standards are there to help 'normalise' by setting out clear, detailed technical guidance and benchmarks - this helps designers, constructors and its own building inspectors, who may not previously have encountered a particular method of construction. "We have to engender confidence with lenders and investors that homes built in offsite methods are going to stand the test of time compared with traditional build," says Graham Sibley, Market Development Manager, NHBC. "It's all about the finished quality. The challenge is how we marry the standard we can expect to see in a finished home to deliver an NHBC warranty."
Competing standards and accreditation are not providing the certainty that many would like to see and there is a case for cross-industry collaboration between NHBC and BRE, BSI, BOPAS to establish a standardisation or 'kitemark' for offsite. But that approach must be rigorous. Across the board there is a need for consistency which can be difficult. Factory accreditations and control measures that pertain just to the factory and finished components are one aspect. The pressure points are when these are transferred to site and used at site level. Site conditions are different across the country and this all has to be taken into account. "Lenders want assurance," says Steve Lees, New Build Risk Manager at Countrywide Surveying Services, "There are a lot of accreditation and exterior bodies out there. Somebody needs to take ownership from a standards point of view as there is confusion."
Will offsite solve the housing crisis? The general consensus is that: "it won't solve a crisis but it will prevent a catastrophe." By itself it won't solve all the problems, indeed it would be misleading to think it can. "It poses a challenge to people who are procuring and developing buildings, says David Lomax, Senior Associate at Waugh Thistleton. "There needs to be an incentive for improvement and disrupting the construction sector with good architecture. We have world leading technology and we need to force the construction industry to change for the better."
Many thanks to NHBC for hosting the Roundtable Event and thanks to all participants for their time and contributions to the discussion.
For more information on NHBC visit: www.nhbc.co.uk