Lessons from around the world: What the UK can learn from other countries’ use of modular

Not much has changed for housebuilding around the world with many countries still building homes the same way today as they were 100 years ago. But do not be mistaken, change is on the horizon.

Modern methods of construction (MMC), such as offsite manufacturing, have a pivotal role to play in solving the UK’s housing crisis.

Britain’s housebuilders and policymakers need to only look to the likes of Japan and Sweden, where offsite manufacturing has been wholly embraced as a way to diversify the supply of new housing, to understand how beneficial modern methods can be for a country in delivering the housing it needs.

Lessons from Sweden

The use of modern methods, such as offsite manufacturing, varies significantly from country to country, but the global leaders historically have been Sweden and Japan – two of the world’s most forward-thinking countries when it comes to housing delivery.

According to Savills, an estate agency, Sweden has the highest uptake of MMC, with around 45 percent of all new homes utilising modern methods. For single-family homes, the tally is closer to 80 percent!

Savills’ data chimes with a study from the University of California which predicts that Sweden is delivering nearly half of its new housing using some form of MMC.

To put these findings into context, the UK currently delivers just 10 percent of new homes using modern methods.

One reason for the huge uptake in Sweden is due to the country’s climate, which veers between hot in the summer months to freezing in the winter. Because of this climate, there is only a short window of time when the ground is soft enough to build upon in Sweden. 

Offsite manufacturing – which cuts construction programmes in half when compared to traditional methods – is, therefore, an ideal solution.

The use of offsite manufacturing in Sweden has also been encouraged by the government’s pledge to improve sustainability within the construction industry. Typically, by manufacturing offsite, carbon emissions can be reduced by up to 50 percent.

This is because offsite manufacturers, such as ourselves, are able to significantly reduce the amount of waste produced as digital tools allow us to generate precise estimates of materials needed for each build, achieve high levels of recycling and build homes that outperform the energy performance of a bricks and mortar home.

Lessons from Japan

While Sweden delivers the highest proportion of homes being delivered using modern methods (around 45 percent), Japan produces the highest number of new modular homes.

Each year, up to 180,000 new modular homes are manufactured in Japan, equivalent to 15-20 percent of all new housing – that’s about 10,000 more than the total of all new homes delivered by developers in the UK in 2019!

Japan’s largest housebuilder, Sekisui House is a champion of MMC and last year entered the UK market through a partnership with Urban Splash and the government’s housing agency, Homes England that will see them deliver thousands of homes across the UK through the use of offsite manufacturing techniques.

The techniques used in Japan have been described as half a century ahead of the UK’s offsite manufacturing sector. The Sekisui House factory in Shizuoka can build 4,000 homes a year.

The factory has around 150 robots, each equipped with an arm that is able to manoeuvre on five different axis, in addition to being capable of spinning around on themselves.

High hopes for Britain’s offsite manufacturing industry

While Britain has some way yet to go in reaching the levels achieved in Sweden and Japan, the UK’s MMC industry is certainly well on its way to reaching new heights.

Ministers have set the UK construction industry the ambitious target of becoming the world leader in modular housing within the next 10 years. 

While in the company’s most recent Impact Report, Savills predicts that the UK is set to see the strongest growth in MMC in Europe, estimating that the number of homes delivered using MMC will double to 20 percent by 2030.

Increasing the uptake of MMC is going to be vital, especially if the UK is to tackle some of its biggest issues, such as: an ageing workforce, a mismatch between the supply and demand of new housing and the urgent need to gear up the economy to meet net zero targets by 2050.

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