The social housing crisis – the case for modern methods of construction

// the building envelope

Currently there are a multitude of challenges facing the social housing sector, especially when it comes to building new properties. Here, Ryan Simmonds, Sales Director of Metsec Framing looks at the potential benefits of moving away from traditional build methods and proactively engaging with modern methods of construction.

In the UK, demand for new affordable homes is outstripping supply, increasing pressure to build new housing stock quickly and cost effectively. Although according to the Construction Products Association, the industry is forecast to grow in 2016 , the social housing sector is still likely to suffer. This is because there are still a wide range of challenges to overcome to build new housing - funding, availability of land, planning permissions, drawn out application processes and political red tape to name a few.

Those working within the social housing sector will be well aware of the recent spotlight on this issue and in 2015 the Government pledged a shake up of the system to drive council efficiency and encourage innovation. For example, among the proposals was the opportunity to fast track some planning applications. This is a positive step but there are other areas where improvements to the planning and build process can be made.

For those housing associations and local authorities that are in a position to build – it then becomes crucial to achieve excellent standards of construction, quickly and at a reasonable price. Modern methods of construction are often overlooked as a possible solution to these issues, often due to an institutionalised hesitancy towards change. Alternative methods of construction are often perceived to carry a greater risk due to the fact that these approaches are largely unfamiliar in the public sector.

Systems such as light gauge steel framing can make a significant impact on the build time and project costs. For example, a pre-panelised steel framing system such as Metframe, provides a solid option for medium-rise flats. Crucially, it can take under two weeks per floor to construct a medium rise building and stairs and lift shafts are installed as each floor is constructed as an integral part of the system.

This speed of build is possible by utilising off-site construction processes. Constructing elements offsite prevents bottlenecks caused by unavailable equipment or delays in particular trades completing required work. Metframe sections are manufactured to precise lengths from cold rolled steel, before being shipped to authorised installers where the panels are assembled. The completed panels are then delivered to site when required and in the correct erection sequence, saving time and reducing the need for material storage on site.

In addition, the external wall panels are pre-clad with either cement particle board or rigid insulation, which ensures that a weather tight envelope is achieved quickly as the structure is built. These systems can also accommodate concrete floors that offer excellent acoustic, fire and thermal performance helping to meet building standards and creating a comfortable internal environment.

Furthermore, modular elements, such as bathroom pods, and materials can be craned into position as each floor is constructed, allowing work on the interior spaces to be completed more quickly. Modern methods of construction can also provide material savings, for example the lower weight of the framing system compared with traditional methods allows shallower foundations to be employed.

These time and efficiency savings on site can have a significant impact on the overall build schedule as well as project costs – often helping to off-set the initial capital outlay.

However, unfamiliarity with modern methods of construction can lead decision makers to favour traditional approaches, frequently at the expense of benefits to productivity. Engaging with manufacturers and installers early in the design process will allow specifiers to choose the correct approach and accelerate the completion of projects, relieving pressure on social housing stocks.

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