Addressing building concerns with innovation

With the recent focus on unsafe and ageing school buildings, Jackie Maginnis, chief executive from the Modular and Portable Building Association, discusses how a volumetric approach to construction can help remedy the situation and fast-track the school building programme

UK schools are facing yet another unprecedented challenge. As teachers and education leaders fight to get learning back on track, their efforts are now hampered by unsafe structures and a severe lack of alternative learning environments. In the latest list published by the Department of Education (DfE), 147 schools have already been identified as affected by the use of dangerous reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) in their buildings.
RAAC is a lightweight material that is a cheaper alternative to standard concrete but was found to be less durable and with a shorter life span.
Some affected schools are having to move to remote learning and others having to change the way they operate to avoid certain areas.
The NAO reported back in June that an estimated 700,000 children are being taught in ageing or unsafe school buildings in England, and that the deteriorating condition of school buildings is damaging pupil attainment and teacher retention.

Action is clearly required. The government has its ten year rebuilding programme, but we need a fast-track approach to get this back on track.
Addressing the poor and dangerous condition of some school buildings is without doubt a massive undertaking. But by using innovative construction methods – it is not unsurmountable.

Constructure offsite
Back in January 2020, the Department for Education (DfE) launched the £3 billion offsite framework, also known as MMC1.
As an early adopter of modern methods of construction (MMC), after the war the government used latent munitions factory capacity to cope with a rapid increase in the need for education buildings as a result of the post war baby boom. This was very much the development ground for MMC – backed by thinking way ahead of its time.
Government support has resulted in a significant pipeline of work which has generated more investment and innovation in the volumetric modular sector – advancing the technology and increasing manufacturing capacity. MMC1 together with the requirement to achieve at least 70 per cent Pre-Manufactured Value (PMV) is a driving force in the specification of volumetric technology in public sector projects – particularly in the education sector.
As the name suggests, PMV is the financial proportion of a project’s gross construction E F cost derived through pre-manufacturing. It is a core metric for measuring the level of MMC in a project and is central to the UK government’s procurement programme. Contractors are required to show that pre-manufacturing will account for at least 70 per cent of all construction costs. This essentially plays to the strengths of a volumetric modular approach.

Productivity gains
Increasing productivity is crucial to success. We have the technology, capabilities and capacity, so how can this be achieved? By taking the building process ‘offsite’ into quality controlled manufacturing environments whilst simultaneously, ground and foundation works can be carried out onsite. This approach not only delivers productivity  gains but enhances the quality of the final output.  
Traditional onsite construction methods often get delayed by bad weather, material shortages, planning issues and even material theft. Whereas modular construction is a highly organised and streamlined process that can see construction project times reduced by up to 50 per cent.
Time is taken upfront to validate the specification of materials to meet the safety and performance standards laid down by the DfE. Thanks to testing regimes and quality control inspections as well as extensive third-party assessments – from concept to completion, the design, manufacturing and installation processes are regulated and controlled.  

Innovative technology
Technology is ever evolving, and the modular industry is now integrating Building Information Modelling (BIM) and digital design specifications with Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Material Requirement Planning (MRP) to improve accuracy, productivity and material usage. This technology permits manufacturing simulation and visualisation, clash detection and virtual onsite assembly modelling/programming, which can be enhanced using augmented and virtual reality.
The demand for customisation has also led the industry to develop methods for adaptation during the mass production process to meet individual requirements. These modules can be delivered to site pre-fitted with electrics, plumbing, heating, doors, windows and washrooms, thereby reducing the onsite building programme and accelerating the overall construction process.
Miscalculations in traditional construction approaches can send high volumes of unwanted materials to landfill and materials stored onsite are vulnerable to damage or water ingress. But modular construction has put a stop to this, resulting in a 90 per cent reduction of project material waste.  

Low carbon buildings
In November 2021 the DfE published a delivery framework so that all new schools and colleges can meet the same low-carbon, climate-resilient standards as centrally delivered projects. From now on, bids into the governments Further Education Capital Transformation Programme will also be assessed to determine if the new works will be net zero in operation.
According to the World Green Building Council, construction and buildings in use are responsible for 39 per cent of all carbon emissions in the world. This is broken down into two elements with 11 per cent being linked to the manufacture of materials and construction processes known as embodied carbon emissions and 28 per cent associated with operational emissions caused by heating, cooling and lighting systems when a building is in use.
The challenge is therefore two-fold. Whilst there has been a drive to reduce operational emissions through the implementation of government legislation to improve the building fabric and the wider use of innovative technologies – little has been done to address the carbon inefficiencies in the construction process.
It is now established that a volumetric modular approach is a game changer for the construction industry – reducing build times whilst increasing quality, productivity and safety. But what is not so widely understood is that compared to traditionally built projects, it is easier to control energy use in factory settings than in an open construction site. On average 67 per cent less energy is required to produce a volumetric manufactured building and up to 50 per cent less time is spent onsite, resulting in up to 90 per cent fewer vehicle movements which is less disruptive and reduces carbon emissions.
Not only is the actual construction of the building ‘greener’ but importantly in these times of excessive heating costs, volumetric manufactured buildings are more energy efficient. Through superior insulation and achieving enhanced levels of airtightness – primary energy requirements and in-use operational emissions are reduced throughout the lifetime of the building.

Building performance
Unlike factory manufactured buildings, there is significant evidence that traditional construction methods do not produce structures that perform as well as design expectations and there is a void between anticipated and actual in-use performance. Findings from studies such as PROBE (Post Occupancy Review of Buildings and their Engineering) reveal that actual energy consumption in buildings is often as much as twice of that predicted in the design.
Bringing a manufacturing mindset to the design and construction of school buildings –  with volumetric manufactured buildings all construction data can be validated and coordinated as part of a structured process, which helps provide accurate and reliable information for clients at the point of handover. Volumetric construction helps ensure client satisfaction and offers product assurances through the certainty and quality embedded into the manufacturing process.
Providing a predictable pathway for education builds, the benefits of volumetric manufactured buildings begin in the factory, continue to the construction site and last through the lifetime of the building.

Representing the industry
The Modular and Portable Building Association plays a key role in supporting all sections of the industry. Leading best practice principles, the association is represented on many committees for the benefit of members. Most importantly, the MPBA ensure evolving government policies and decisions are not made on behalf of the construction industry without due consideration for the impact they may have on the volumetric modular sector. Regardless of the size and type of your business, becoming an MPBA member will open doors to valuable business development, training and collaboration opportunities.

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