A Code for Confidence

A fundamental part of the success and appeal of volumetric module manufacture rests in the repeatability of units and design. But issues surrounding interoperabity of systems and detailing still persist, affecting quality and client confidence. Has the time arrived for a standard Code for volumetric modular buildings?  Darren Richards, Managing Director of the UK’s leading offsite construction consultants, Cogent Consulting, addresses the need.

Volumetric modular construction has long ceased to be an emerging construction technology. It is increasingly being viewed as a reliable way to deliver the raft of new homes the UK needs, with copious high-profile innovations over the past 18 months. By assembling volumetric modules in a precision-controlled factory environment, the production line techniques that drive module assembly bring speed of delivery, quality of end product and a dramatic improvement in productivity. Factory fit-out means that modules can leave a facility virtually complete with windows, doors and interiors finished ready for cranage and site installation.  

In recent months there has been much industry talk about the creation of some overarching guideline or Code for the world of volumetric modular delivery. Last year’s London Assembly Planning Committee report into offsite manufacture (OSM) Designed, Sealed, Delivered, stated clearly: “The absence of OSM specific design codes and standardisation is holding back the development of the sector.” It also recommended working towards defining and adopting a ‘manufactured housing design code’ to drive a more standardised and aggregated demand profile which can be delivered by a range of technologies.

What would a Code do – how would it help?  The automotive and aerospace industries have long been seen as shining examples of scale, efficiency and reliability – with what is often perceived as an endless capacity to innovate and be dynamic. The general malaise of the UK construction industry was encapsulated in Mark Farmer’s review Modernise or Die – defining declining productivity, an ageing workforce, low investment in skills and training and a general reticence to innovate and change from the accepted norms – all leading to a construction industry with poor perceptions and poor results.  

Things can and should only get better. The issue amongst many volumetric module manufacturers are the small incremental differences between systems and interfaces. Points of difference that give an individual company its individuality or competitive edge but ultimately offers little different to the vast majority of competitors. This excess of designs and systems all bring with them separate issues of intellectual property rights that often challenge the very conditions required by manufacturing to scale.
Manufacturing is driven by standardisation and interchangeable components that reduce costs and provide certainty in the event of needing to change suppliers and manufacturers if companies fail. When this occurs intellectual property is often lost and is difficult to substitute with other products. So a more joined-up, collaborative approach across the whole sector is required. Creating and establishing a recognised Code will stimulate interoperability and ensure quality throughout the offsite sector – while remaining system agnostic. The entire volumetric modular sector would benefit from closer collaboration among manufacturers and building designers to drive innovation with a Code establishing the limits and common parameters for all factory-built modular homes.

What a Code would ultimately achieve is to define a set of common principles on volumetric modular delivery. As has been noted elsewhere – this may even include spatial planning plus a component ‘catalogue’ approach. The Code should be developed in conjunction with designers, manufacturers and housing providers and specify the key rules of engagement under a design for manufacture and assembly (DfMA) approach. The Code can address areas of design for performance, as well as regulatory guidance and it can critically be a series of signposts for architects and engineers about structural tolerances, module interfaces, materials, health and safety, durability, logistics and onsite finishes.

Not only would a Code ensure the quality of homes built using volumetric modular construction, but it would also help improve the levels of confidence in the sector from a risk averse level of client, developer and lender. Certainly one common aspiration is to have Code branded as a ‘kite mark’, supported by suitable warranty providers. This could potentially drive a more standardised demand profile which can be delivered by a range of suppliers and systems and which is fully recognised by the funding and valuation sectors. 

Developing the Code presents a number of technological and design challenges, but the overarching challenge will be creating the culture and mindset to enable a genuinely collaborative and common interest approach.  The industry must adopt a mature stance and recognise that the right approach will provide benefit to all.  

For more information visit: www.cogent-consulting.co.uk

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