With the housing crisis continuing to roll on, Phil Cox, director at MPA Masonry, explains why a variegated approach to housebuilding might be the only way out
While the country’s urgent demand for more housing is nothing new, it seems we’re still never closer to resolving the issue. There’s no denying market complexities are having an impact. For example, the lack of labour and skills shortages within construction are exacerbating problems, not to mention the more recent issue of material supplies and COVID complications.
Yet in 2022, these are hardly revelatory. So, why does housebuilding continue to be stuck in first gear?
A recent investigative report by the House of Lords identifies the sector’s shortcomings in planning, foresight, and communication as the main sticking point. If UK construction is to learn from the lessons of the past to carve out a better future, it would be wise to cultivate a housebuilding ecosystem built on a diversity of approaches, ensuring housing supply is not only affordable and high quality, but that it is not easily susceptible to market changes.
Policy makers must avoid a groupthink, tunnel-vision approach to this problem, as it risks alienating SMEs through over-reliance on expensive technologies and materials. We need a diverse playing field, embracing the benefits of a variety of techniques. Currently, a quiet war is being fought between on- and offsite, traditional build pitted against modern methods of construction (MMC). The latter of course, being the flavour of the month.
However, it really doesn’t have to be this way, as there’s room enough for both to contribute to the government’s ambitious 300,000 homes-a-year target.
So, in the interest of diversifying the housebuilding ecosystem, I will explore some of the opportunities that exist for traditional building methods in a world which tends to hold new and modish technologies on a platform.
Best of both
The defunct Green Homes Grant scheme offers the perfect example of how overly specific criteria and limited flexibility has led to inaction, primarily through the ‘new is best’ approach.
Too often, time-tested approaches are mistaken for being irrelevant or overly carbon intensive. However, traditional, on-site construction continue to be effective and many product manufacturers, particularly in the masonry sector, have taken significant steps to enhance the sustainability of their materials. For example, the concrete block industry is continuously looking at material composition, exploring the use of recycled aggregates and alternative cementitious options to ensure circular design.
“If UK construction continues as it is, housing targets will remain a pipedream”
Beyond this, when global supply chain issues threaten productivity, masonry remains unaffected. Due to its local nature, it’s estimated that that any active site in the UK is only 40 miles from a masonry manufacturer or builders’ merchant. What’s more, as the materials are supplied in raw form, they can be sourced regionally, often close to the manufacturing facilities.
And it shouldn’t just be seen in terms of whole-life carbon in the individual brick or block. Practically speaking, masonry, combined with high-performance mineral insulation, delivers consistent, optimal thermal performance, keeping occupants comfortable and utility bills down.
A combined approach
Further, materials such as masonry also maintain relevance in conjunction with MMC, as much as traditional builds, where these sustainable and energy efficiency benefits can yield huge gains for developers.
There’s a strong, growing argument that the best way forward is to combine traditional and modern methods; projects that use each as appropriate stand to benefit from the best of both worlds.
For instance, combining masonry with passive solar design (PSD) is one of the best ways to ensure optimal fabric performance, warming the foundation of a building and reducing the need for additional heating. As a heavy material, it soaks up solar gains, which, when combined with passive HVAC, helps maintain comfortable temperatures all year-round.
It also helps reduce the carbon impact of buildings through increased energy efficiency, a meaningful step towards our net-zero future in the face of rising renewable energy costs.
The way forward
Those are just a few thoughts on a massive and complex topic. Fundamentally, if UK construction continues as it is, housing targets will remain a pipedream, as we’ll still be waiting for something which doesn’t and never will exist.
The saying that diversity breeds innovation doesn’t apply only to people. Housebuilding has a wide range of methods at its disposal. If they are all equally considered in the efforts to solve the housing crisis, I think we’ll find the whole toolbox is greater than the sum of its parts.
Main image: bogdanhoda/Shutterstock
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