Enter the MMC adviser, a new role that could transform construction

Stephen Wightman is UK MMC lead at consultancy Faithful+Gould

The growth of modern methods of construction (MMC) has progressed slowly, a key issue being a lack of understanding of its benefits. As MMC only represents about 7 per cent of UK construction, most industry stakeholders lack user experience other than the prefabricated classrooms and office units seen across the education and commercial estates. And these are often considered less than inspiring.

Another challenge is that the plus points of MMC are not widely quantified. It’s only worth taking the MMC route if the benefits offer value to the project in question. The value of reduced build time and site disruption; increased predictability; and improved quality, health and safety, and sustainability needs to be quantified from the outset.

Too often, MMC is used without proper consideration. It then fails to deliver the expected benefits and the project is deemed to have failed. Was it the wrong project for the systems or materials selected, or the wrong contractor? Did the stakeholders and professional advisers have insufficient MMC understanding? Did they fail to work in line with the detailing and methods used? Or was it down to inadequate knowledge of the specialist MMC supply chain? If a traditional construction project fails, nobody says ‘traditional construction doesn’t work’. We don’t blame the brick itself.

Distrust of early engagement

Early consideration of MMC really is necessary. This timing allows the design and project to progress while considering the requirements of the selected supplier’s system, and ensures an efficient and streamlined process. Suppliers point out that this avoids duplicated and unnecessary work and delay, which is key to balancing MMC’s perceived cost uplift.

However, clients may be concerned about MMC’s perceived longer lead-in times, and reticent about early commitment to a system or supplier, as they think it hinders competition and gives the supply chain too much power. There is a fear of being held to ransom, further along the process, over changes to specification and design.

“Like the net-zero adviser, the MMC adviser will become a new professional route, evolving as processes and targets change”

So how do we address these perceived risks to ensure early consideration of MMC, while allowing clients to meet their statutory obligations, retain breadth of supply and maintain the required level of competition?

The answer lies in the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) 2021 Design for Manufacturing Assembly (DfMA) Overlay to the Plan of Work. This aligns consistent and methodical development of MMC projects with the RIBA Plan of Work – the most commonly used roadmap to define the principal stages of a construction project.

The overlay sets out the drivers of change towards the MMC mindset. It aims to dispel the myth that MMC is a barrier to great architecture, and explains that the approach is relevant to projects of all sizes and to existing buildings.

RIBA acknowledges that DfMA and MMC require a different approach to projects and recommends an addition to the professional advisory team: an MMC adviser. This role acts as a foil, critical friend and guide to the pre-construction team, ensuring that all MMC-related factors are properly assessed.

In my view, this role should be independent of the core design team and MMC suppliers. An MMC adviser who was agnostic on material and MMC method would add greater value and bring more likelihood of success.

The appointed person would conduct a full assessment of all project drivers that influence MMC’s suitability for the project: location, site-specific conditions, suggested building form, programme, cost, net-zero strategy, social value, corporate governance, health and safety, and other factors. 

To do this successfully, the MMC adviser would need a breadth of experience of MMC techniques, materials, processes and supply chains, so they could challenge and guide the design team on the best-fit solution.

When to appoint an MMC adviser

For a programme of work, I suggest engaging the MMC adviser at the stage “left of zero”, for assessment of strategic project drivers and defining the most suitable outcome for high-level stakeholders. This manages MMC expectations at the early stage and allows dialogue with funders and other stakeholders. For a single project, engage an MMC adviser no later than the architect. 

The RIBA overlay states that the MMC adviser’s most important contribution is prior to the appointment of a manufacturer or contractor, adding that they could be involved in all RIBA stages. An independent MMC adviser would act as client-side guardian in interactions with pre-construction and project-delivery teams, but there is very real value in their ongoing involvement.

The role of MMC adviser offers a practical and consistent approach to assisting all stakeholders – and it will be interesting to see how this vital responsibility develops across the industry. Like the net-zero adviser and other new advisory roles, the MMC adviser will become a new professional route, evolving as processes and targets change.

There’s no doubt that MMC has a major part to play in improving construction outcomes and delivering higher-quality built assets that also help to achieve net-zero goals. I believe the DfMA Overlay and the role of the MMC adviser point the way to successfully delivering this process.

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