Modern methods of construction (MMC), also known as modular construction, offers the opportunity to rethink how we conceptualise, design and build much-needed housing. The design process provides an opportunity to speed up construction, make challenging sites viable, and provide varied and adaptable homes that respond to the needs of local neighbours and communities.

Although MMC has tantalised the industry for decades, currently less than 10% of housing in the UK is built this way – despite an ongoing housing crisis and a need to build millions more homes in the coming years. Why? While research to date has focused mainly on the financial and technical barriers, there is evidence that the planning system is considered too rigid and unaccommodating for MMC. 

Smoothing the development management process

MMC homes, using pre-agreed design specifications, could speed up decisions, streamline the rest of the process and reduce risk. Design codes can be used to set out a suite of design options which are all acceptable. These could be used alongside Local Development Orders to enable applications to be determined in as little as 28 days. 

However, this streamlined, risk-minimising approach will only be possible with a shift in the attitudes of some local planning departments. The advantages of a new MMC planning model will be eroded by planning officers and members seeking to alter designs. A pragmatic approach is also needed when applying planning conditions. 

Elevating the role of design and responding to place
The principles of MMC are not new - off-site construction techniques have been used to efficiently manufacture performance-led dwellings since the late 1940s. The successful roll-out would depend on the homes being both desirable to potential residents and attractive to existing communities. 

This method of construction can deliver a wide range of house types and materials, massing, layout and detailed design can all be tailored to local context. With clever modular designs, new homes can also be adaptable and respond to changing needs, for example as residents become older. Giants like Amazon are already investing in technology-enabled, prefabricated modular housing, and companies like Tata Steel are developing housing systems that could provide quality, adaptable modular designs. This could enable us to upgrade our homes in much the same way that we upgrade cars and technology. 

Harnessing digital innovation

A digital approach could provide mass customisation, which allows manufacturers to develop a wide range of homes using common components. By using online configurations to design homes, this method has the potential to revolutionise the way in which residents buy their future homes. 

The combination of digital infrastructure innovations and MMC has the potential to transform the planning system – accelerating the rate at which paper applications are replaced with designs direct from digital platforms.

Imagine a system where paper driven applications are replaced with designs direct from digital platforms which are pre-agreed with the local council then sent straight to the production line.

Vicky Evans


Opportunities for partnerships to implement MMC at scale

Partnerships are fundamental to delivering MMC to accelerate the traditional housing construction market. MMC needs a critical mass and those in the built environment including local authorities, developers, planners, public bodies – should look for opportunities to achieve this. 

To enable MMC to become an everyday delivery method, all parts of the housing system need to align - and planning is a vital component of this. Developers, manufacturers and local councils need to work together to change attitudes and introduce a streamlined planning process which has the potential to bring about real change in the industry.