Thursday, March 10th, 2016
Author : Michèle M. Rhodius Dip. LA, MSc UD, CMLI (Retired)
Joint Co-ordinator of Inverness Area Greens
It was the day of the Scottish Greens Campaign Launch in Inverness and Patrick Harvie’s whistle-stop tour of the Highlands and Orkney was in full swing.
The day began with a visit to a workshop deep in the rural countryside between Inverness and Dores; not at all where you might expect a house construction workshop to be. We were visiting Neil Sutherland, local Architect, at his MAKAR Workshop where he manufactures houses off-site in the form of modular units for construction on-site within 4 days.
Yes you did read that correctly! 4 days! Not 4 months – 4 days!
This construction method is known as ‘Modern Methods of Construction’ or more recently as ‘Innovative Methods of Construction’. It is historically the principal form of multi-efficient construction delivery used by Northern European and Fennoscandian countries but has largely been ignored by the UK as a pragmatic building technique.
In the inter-World war years there was a significant shortage of skilled labour and building materials stimulating a search for more efficient methods of construction. Nevertheless only 5% of the 4.5 million houses built during that period were pre-fabricated (S1). At this time Scotland lacked both good quality bricks and bricklayers exacerbated by “rising costs of stone and slate” and this forced the building of substantially more prefabricated housing than in England (S1).
Post World War II and throughout the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) were used in a variety of forms from industrialised building methods (factory pre-fabrication/on-site assembly) to volumetric construction (lightweight timber/steel frames or panels for multi-box construction on-site) (S1). Again in Scotland where timber frame construction has been widely used traditionally MMC was more widely utilised.
During the 1990’s there was a political shift toward the construction of energy/acoustic efficient and quality affordable homes culminating in the Egan Report of 1998 (S2) and attention once again refocused upon MMC. Notwithstanding this off-site construction of buildings still only forms some 2% of the total construction market today! (S1)
The advantages of MMC are many and include shorter build times; factory controlled build quality conditions; less workmen, noise and pollution on-site; greater employment in the factory/workshop; economies of scale with bulk orders; cost reductions with shorter production and erection times; and source accountability and certification of all materials and components. The digitisation of all design, materials and components should also facilitate complete Life Cycle assessment together with Carbon and Ecological Footprinting although this is rarely performed.
In terms of housing – why is it that the UK has not embraced this construction technique which has the potential to resolve the severe problems of the housing industry?
Interestingly at the Off-Site Construction Show October 2015 the question “Why, although the off-site sector is on course to hit £7billion by 2018 is there still resistance or reluctance to engage with this method of construction amongst so many?” was debated. According to Mike Stevenson in his article in November 2015’s MMC magazine “the view of the panel was that there was a real knowledge gap when it came to off-site methods and understanding the achievable benefits of building this way.” The panel reckoned that this was in part due to off-site not featuring sufficiently in an Architect’s training and in part due to “a resistance at constructor level to engaging with off-site and seeing it through to delivery”. However where “design teams are increasingly starting to work collaboratively with the off-site sector” it seems that contractors and developers still want to break design solutions “down into individual components for procurement purposes because it is cheaper” and this is “entirely counter to the principles of off-site construction, which is all about solutions that ensure all the components work together, including the key joints and interfaces, to guarantee the performance of the structure.” Clearly in the UK there is a lack of collaboration and too much conflict resulting in innovative stagnation. Unlike Europe the UK is very risk averse although I suspect Scotland is much less so. It is in Scotland then where off-site construction may still yet be pioneered.
The paradox of the current situation in the housing crisis is that both the Coalition Government of 2010-15 and the present Conservative Government have blatantly re-interpreted and disregarded the recommendations of the Barker Report (S3) adversely affecting both the function of the Housebuilding Industry and the Planning System in England. It is commendable that, to date, the Scottish Planning System is still operating a built environment policy based upon sound Urban Design principles although not implementing land allocation and associated local government finance reforms to facilitate the necessary construction targets. And neither Westminster nor Holyrood have made significant investment in Social House building. Having said that, there are concerns that the recent Scottish Government Planning review could result in the similar diminishment of the Planning System which the Conservative Westminster Government effected in England to the detriment of quality development, carbon efficiency and Climate Change adaptation. And none of this combats ‘land-banking’ of land already in possession of Planning permission and yet remaining undeveloped!
For my part as an Urban Designer within various Planning Departments across England I became very aware of the resistance of Housing Developers to foot the cost of Affordable Housing and set aside their longstanding traditional design templates in order to produce low carbon homes arguing increased costs where in reality innovative building methods gainsay that flawed reasoning. At this time (2005-2010) the government policy was an expectation that Developers would contribute significantly toward brownfield re-development and community infrastructure in the form of green open space, urban squares and community facilities with very little government funding to balance the books. Resistance was rife and the planning negotiation process protracted. Brownfield land is invariably contaminated and remediation both costly and requiring of specialist skills. Building in the urban townscape is very different to designing for the rural greenbelt; most volume Housebuilders are not equipped with the necessary design expertise and fail dramatically producing poor quality bland urban environments and townscapes. Nonetheless, whether it be urban regeneration or new housing creative design and innovation is spectacularly lacking from the majority of new development and only a few usually smaller companies blaze this trail. Aesthetics and creating places of distinction has been a European priority since World War I however the UK prefers to build ‘on the cheap’ and prioritise bland design monotony.
So it is positively refreshing to find an Architect who has set himself up in the business of design and off-site construction with his own workshop in rural Inverness-shire.
With truly Scottish roots ‘makar’ is an old Scot’s word for “creativity, quality and workmanship” and this is the ethos of MAKAR. A Makar is also a Scottish poet or bard so I guess Neil is also seeking to bring an ecological poetic rhythm to his buildings and their ‘place’.
Using locally sourced Scottish grown renewable timber to construct their unique purpose-designed closed wall/floor panels and roof cassettes in their MAKAR workshop custom designed home kits are fabricated in factory controlled conditions. These structural panels are insulated with cellulose or sheep’s’ wool natural materials to achieve a high thermal insulation standard and can be pre-plumbed and wired to achieve even faster on-site build times. Certified fully traceable Renewable materials, energy efficient construction delivering low cost energy bills, healthy living environment created by use of natural materials wherever possible, designed whole life cycle of the building to have a low carbon footprint and the use of continuing research and innovation to improve performance mean that MAKAR like all progressive housebuilders continue to push the boundaries and revolutionise sustainable design and technology.
John Finnie said “”Neil’s talent is not limited to his innovative designs. His holistic outlook includes looking at innovation in planning and encouraging better design and off-site construction.”
It is worth noting that these houses need virtually no heating so the jibe of the press saying that the Scottish Greens want to turn oil workers into lumber jacks could actually become reality. If we can build houses from local wood which need little or no heating then we will not need all the heating oil we currently use.
This sound approach to living within our Ecological Footprint and adapting our lifestyles to limit Climate Change is why the Scottish Green Party strides forward so boldly with our message for a ‘better Scotland and a bolder Holyrood’. –
Photo source: http://makar.co.uk/design-build/off-site-manufacturing
S1 : ‘Offsite Production in the UK Construction Industry –A Brief Overview’ – Author : HSE – June 2009
S2 : ‘Rethinking Construction’ the report of the Construction Task Force’ (the Egan Report) – Author Sir John Egan – 1998
S3 : The Barker Report : ‘Review of Housing Supply – Final report – Recommendations’ – Author : Kate Barker – March 2004
“MAKAR Carbon Measurement Project” – Author : Dr Jennifer Monahan, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia – July 2014
“Be Aware – Modern Methods of Construction (MMC)“ – Author : BRE – March 2009
“Modern Methods of Construction – Evolution or Revolution?” – Author : BURA Steering and Development Forum – October 2005
“Current Practices and Future Potential in Modern Methods of Construction” – Author : WRAP (Waste & Resources Action Programme) – 2007
“Using Modern Methods of Construction to build homes more quickly and efficiently” – report by the National Audit Office – November 2005
“Building a better Britain” – Author : RIBA – 2014
“The Institutional Capacity of the UK Speculative Housebuilding Industry” – Author : Sarah Payne – PhD submission to dept. Urban Studies, University of Glasgow – June 2009
“The UK Housebuilding Industry : An Analysis Of Post-Barker Structural Responses” – Author : Dr Youngha Cho – School of the Built Environment, Oxford Brookes University – September 2011
MAKAR An architect-led ecological Design & Build Company – http://makar.co.uk/