Working across the built environment, from building products, through to social housing, attending this year's Housing Conference in Manchester was a no brainer. Add to this the fact Britain is reaching a sensitive period in terms of the government's willingness to further invest in housing / infrastructure, it was a must go to event (a national social housing contractor that this year agreed to partner us on senior appointments moving forward was also a main sponsor).
This year’s event was staggeringly good, with over 500 speakers across the three days. The need for me to satisfy project delivery, I could only attend on Wednesday but here are my learnings:
Housing and the economic landscape
In the morning I made a beeline for a talk on Housing and the economic landscape, presented by Paul Bridge, CEO of Civitas, Hamish McRae, economic columnist with the Independent and Vicky Pryce, Chief Economic Adviser for the CEBR.
Condensing the debate, it was agreed that there is a continued strong sense of political address for social housing and a sustained need to drive this forward. The worry is with Brexit, schooling and the NHS high on the agenda, will social housing continue to be able to hold its own.
Vicky argued that government is unclear of the return infrastructure as a whole creates. There needs to be raw analysis and a strong message sent on the "multiplier effect" it creates (jobs, leisure etc).
Hamish continued by stating the UK's population will increase from 67 million to 70 million inside the next 10 years. In basic terms this will equate to 100,000 local authority homes needing to be developed a year. Yes, per year!
He continued by highlighting that with interest rates still low, for now at least, it is worrying that construction rates are down on last year. He raised an interesting point when stating that cities and towns no longer need so much space for car parks and shops since the impact of online shopping. This further frees up brownfield sites.
Irrespective, for him, the government will lead people to becoming more independent of mind and choice, as illustrated by what has happened with pensions. It will try to manoeuvre the country in similar ways regarding housing options.
The panel concluded that in ten years Brexit will not be a seminal moment for the UK and the government does and will have more pressing issues to solve moving forward. Time will tell!
Although I primarily went to the Housing Conference to listen to the issues and meet with contacts in the wider housing market, I was buoyed to see a good offsite presence.
In the afternoon I listened to Tony Woods and Tim Oakley, both from the LHC, on the issues and history to LHC offsite offering. Both have a wealth of experience of integrating these offsite solutions into their portfolio. Tony illustrated MMC, offsite, modular, call it what you wish, is not a new concept (and should not be associated with the post-war prefab market!) Condensing his points:
- LHC delivered 300,000 houses as far back as 1966 when the Industry Housing report was produced. A lot of lessons were learnt
- In part the stigma still associated with this technology can be attributed to the 1980 World in Action documentary on timber frame houses. The industry dropped from 8% of homes produced to just 4% in a year
- BRE helped drive this figure up and now has over 500 manufacturers on their approved list
- The Amphion report of 2001 attempted to drive a consortium of 30 providers to speed up affordable housing. It failed
- There is the Kate Barker report of 2004 (where the 300,000 homes were born) and Advantage South West's development of 4,000 houses
- In 2014, after the Buildoffsite "Offsite Housing Review", LHC developed their first framework. This did not stop KPMG highlighting that in 2014 70% of houses built were attributed to the large builders
- In their 2015 report, EC Harris concluded that 25% of all new homes needed to be built using MMC (in part due to skill shortages and affordability). This would drive the then 152,000 homes developed to 190,000
- In 2015 Laing O'Rourke announced plans to build an MMC factory, closely followed by L&G
- And then of course there was the Farmer Review of 2016
Tony Woods (LHC Group Technical Manager) raised compelling views on how he feels the supply chain needs to work together to ensure improvements to the running of offsite projects.
Although the overarching failings tend to revolve around suppliers not having assurances over the number and flow of units, other points highlighted included:
- Design costs running too high on dreaded pilot schemes - they rarely work and create more question marks than solutions
- Overly complicated contract arrangements - offsite should simplify costs associated with materials, installation and consultations
- A lack of standardisations across specifications and design
- FAC1 documentation needs to be used across the supply chain to ensure the risk is spread and employers can invest across the project life cycle
- PR around MMC needs to change. Tony argued that consumers view purchasing clothes, food and even cars as a one-off transactional arrangement. There is still an emotional connection to buying a house. It is viewed that a team of men sweat from ground up in its building
Adding to this Tim Oakley emphasised the need for developers to invest in an "Offsite Project Integrator". Although consultants and project managers perform elements of this role, no one takes full control of the whole project across to numerous stakeholders. This is especially illustrated by the fact that the main sponsor rarely has control, let alone communication, with architects, developers, contractors and the like. In fact, no one particularly controls the interaction between contractors and specialist contractors.
This person will control in use reviews through the process which can latterly be used in future projects in terms of best practice.
Although not strictly my world, I was compelled to sit into a debate held by technical leaders of Newport Council and Places for People on how the organisations are integrating AI. Both parties have recently been through major modernisation projects to ensure their customer service levels are improved. Two important points stuck with me. Firstly, companies need to ensure all employees understand the benefit of its investment, do not see it as an infringement of their jobs and adopt its use. Once implemented be acutely clear on what data you wish to collect and why. It is all too easy to go off at tangents and lose sight of what you are attending to achieve.
In conclusion, whether you are involved in social housing, building products or construction, this is a must go to event…. I must tap up that social housing contractor to see if I can get me a delegate pass for future conferences!