The parties’ election pledges to build more houses will remain unattainable using traditional methods, writes Tide Construction’s Christy Hayes

Election-focus-final-logov2 (1)

Polling day is upon us and now it is decision time. Among a host of promises, all the leading political  parties have said they will deliver hundreds of thousands of new homes over the course of the next parliament. Regardless of their best intentions, achieving those numbers will remain an impossible task until we reach a breakthrough in the UK construction industry’s productivity.

christy hayes 4

Christy Hayes is chief executive of Tide Construction and Vision Volumetric

Last month, the Construction Industry Training Board’s report made this clear: the UK needs another 250,000 construction workers to keep up with the sector’s forecasted growth over the next five years.

But how would those numbers change if we could build more, faster and with fewer people on each site? Volumetric construction, which involves precision-manufacturing homes in factories, is one part of the solution.

>> Also read: Mark Wild of SGN: Construction must recruit to make progress

>> Also read: Paul Ruddick of Reds10: Ask not what the next government can do for construction

>> Also read: Nicola Hodkinson of Seddon: Will Labour’s apprenticeship reforms really solve the skills crisis?

In 2018, residential developer Greystar set about creating more than 2,000 new homes, with Tide as their construction partner, on 27 acres of brownfield land at Greenford Quay in Ealing, west London. With three phases completed to date and more than 1,000 homes delivered – in addition to extensive new public realm, community and amenity spaces – Greenford Quay will be one of the largest purpose-built rental schemes in the UK.

Looking at it, nothing about Greenford Quay would suggest that the master plan is built almost entirely from volumetric units produced inside a factory in Bedford. Tide’s three mid-rise residential buildings, each with its own character and design, defy conventional ideas of what “modular” homes look like.

But it is volumetric technology that enabled us to create an entire neighbourhood from a vacant expanse of brownfield land in just a few years. It demonstrates the promising potential of volumetric as a tool for boosting the delivery of high-quality new homes at the speed and scale the UK’s housing crisis demands.

Volumetric construction requires up to 60% fewer people onsite

The homes at Greenford Quay were created from 3,000 volumetric units made by our offsite manufacturing company, Vision Volumetric. Unlike traditional construction methods, this approach moves up to 80% of the construction process into controlled factory settings.

Because of this, volumetric construction requires up to 60% fewer people onsite. As a result, the UK’s representative body for manufacturers, Make UK, estimates that modular housebuilding is over 40% more productive in terms of hours worked per m2 built than traditional construction.

Each tradesperson is also required on site for less time, thanks to a streamlined build process with concurrent workstreams that reduce construction programmes by up to 50%. Factory-precision also allows for better quality control, reducing the time spent addressing defects while on site and post-occupancy. The result is a more efficient construction process that frees up skilled labour and minimises construction logistics such as vehicle movements, contributing to reduced project timelines.

To illustrate this, Greenford Quay’s first completed buildings, Tillerman’s Quay and Lyons Dock, took just 18 and 16 months to complete respectively. Collectively the buildings provide more than 600 homes for Ealing. Most recently, precision-manufacturing Greenford Quay’s third phase, The Glassworks, enabled us to hand over the keys for its 354 homes six weeks ahead of schedule.

>> See also: How big a blow is the closure of L&G’s flagship factory to the prospects of MMC?

>> See also: What went wrong for Ilke Homes?

In addition to the highly compressed programmes, all three buildings benefitted from a phased handover enabling a much faster return on investment whilst the remainder of the building was completed. This is due in most part to the fact Tide’s sites become “installation sites” as opposed to “construction sites” at the point of volumetric install meaning there is a lot less disruption, noise and dust than what you would expect to find traditionally.

Statistics like this ought to turn heads. Representatives on both sides of the political spectrum agree that the UK urgently needs more, better-quality homes – whether that’s 300,000 per year, 1.5 million per term, or otherwise. However, if we continue trying to reach those targets using only traditional methods, they will remain unattainable as they require a much bigger construction workforce than is currently available. 

Volumetric has the potential to attract new, younger, and more diverse talent to the sector. 

As a mainstream method of delivery, volumetric reduces the number of workers required to deliver the UK’s ambitious pipeline of homes. What’s more, volumetric has the potential to attract new, younger, and more diverse talent to the sector. However, there will always be a need for on-site teams. Construction roles in a factory offer a different kind of opportunity: a stable location, less transience, long-term employment, a safer and more controlled environment, fewer physical demands, and the use of different skills.

In addition to alleviating the sector’s skill shortage, volumetric technology enables more certainty in construction programmes and therefore faster regeneration. The National House ڶ Council recently reported that wet weather, as well as skills shortages and unfavourable market conditions, led to the number of new homes registered falling by 20% in the first quarter of 2024. Taking construction offsite and into a factory environment eliminates programme delays due to weather conditions. It’s a case in point for how volumetric projects ensure a more efficient and specific development process, allowing them to be delivered consistently on – or ahead of – schedule.

By making gains in time and using fewer resources, volumetric is one way to boost productivity in the construction sector. If current or future governments plan to make good on the UK’s ambitious targets for housing delivery, politicians and industry leaders should look to volumetric construction as a key part of the puzzle.

Christy Hayes is chief executive of Tide Construction and Vision Volumetric