A leading fire safety expert in the United Kingdom has pleaded with the building sector in that country to avoid neglecting fire safety in the push toward modern methods of construction (MMC).

Speaking at the London Build Expo hosted by Oliver Kinross Productions, Roy Wilsher QBE QSFM, chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council, welcomed the move toward construction methods such as offsite manufacturing and acknowledged the need to deliver new homes in a way which is faster, cheaper and more sustainable.

But he cautioned that this should not override the requirement for fire safety and protection.

As things stand, Wilsher talks of a disconnect between building guidance on matters such as carbon reduction and thermodynamic insulation and the need for fire safety.

As well as being environmentally sustainable and delivered as quickly and cheaply as possible, he says it is necessary to build homes which are safe

“Modern Methods of Construction is fine,” Wilsher said.

“The push for new homes for those who need somewhere to live is fantastic. We need new homes.”

“Just our plea from a fire service point of view is that as we are looking at new methods of construction, as we are looking at carbon neutral methods of construction and as we are looking at building new homes quicker, let’s not forget the fire safety aspects of that.

I wouldn’t agree with a blanket statement that MMC is bad. But if we are going to do it – and we probably need to do it with our targets as a country to be carbon neutral – we need to have safety alongside it.

“Yes, fine. Go ahead (with MMC). But make sure it is in a safe manner.”

Wisher’s comments come as the government in the United Kingdom is pushing a concept known as modern methods of construction .

If done well, the government believes MMC will help to:

  • Tackle the country’s housing shortage and achieve the country’s target to increase the number of new homes which are delivered annually to about 300,000 per year by the mid-2020s by building homes faster and more cheaply.
  • Achieve the country’s NetZero emissions target by 2050, through constructing homes which deliver lower carbon emissions.

According to a definition framework published by the UK Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government published in 2019, the concept of MMC can be summarised according to seven categories:

  • Volumetric Modular systems involving segments of buildings which are manufactured offsite in 3D and fitted together onsite
  • Structural panellised systems: Wall and ceiling panels or frames that are manufactured offsite and assembled onsite.
  • Offsite components: Structural elements, such as load bearing beams, columns and slabs that are built offsite.
  • Additive manufacture Printing parts of buildings, either on or offsite.
  • Non-structural assemblies and sub-assemblies: Non-structural components that are manufactured offsite, such as pods, utility cupboards and risers.
  • On-site building material improvements: Ways to reduce on-site labor by using new materials, such as large format blocks or pre-cut components.
  • On-site process improvement: Use of innovative techniques, such as lean construction, digital augmentation, robots, drones and exoskeletons.

Largely speaking, proponents of MMC argue that this form of construction helps to deliver housing more quickly, more cheaply, more safely and more sustainably with better quality.

This is because  homes are manufactured in a factory-controlled environment with greater precision, less waste and less need for onsite labor.

Despite this, there are concerns that if not managed properly, this form of construction could lead to serious fire danger.

Other panellists broadly welcomed the move toward MMC but acknowledged that it presented challenges which need to be addressed.

Jon Pagan, Chairman of the Fire Industry Council at Fire Industry Association, says it is important to address challenges notwithstanding the advantages of MMC.

Building control checks need to be maintained even though modules may be manufactured far from site and potentially in other countries, he says.

Sufficient space must also be allowed for fire breaks between different modules.

Depending on how it is done, building with cross-laminated timber can result in large areas of exposed timber.

Where competent designers are employed and suitable diligence is applied to ensure that these issues are addressed, Pagan says there is no problem.

On the flip side, he cautions that problems will arise where design is performed on the cheap with designers who are unable to correctly identify concerns and address these within the design.

Tim Jackson, a partner at multi-national constructions firm calfordseaden, said a key to greater uptake of MMC will be consumer confidence in the quality and safety of the final product.

To deliver that, he said several things are needed.

First, third party verification is needed to verify the level of robustness of the offsite manufacturing process. This is important as some factories which deliver offsite builds have seven-to-nine-day production on some modules from raw material to finished product – during which time a significant number of processes and activities take place.

Also needed are robust industry standards along with a standardised approach toward consumer warranties.

On these matters, Jackson says much progress has been made through the Buildoffsite Property Assurance Scheme (BOPAS) – an assurance scheme which aims to provide independent assurance that offsite construction systems have been delivered in a consistent and competent manner conforming to contract specifications.

Finally, Russ Timpson, Managing Director, Crisisboardroom and Tall Building Fire Safety Network, said the UK construction industry needs to address broader cultural issues which have seen an undue focus on cost at the expense of quality or safety – an issue which was highlighted in the review of regulations  undertaken by Dame Judith Hackitt after the Grenfell Tragedy.

Stressing that he is a ‘great fan’ of MMC, Timpson says the industry needs to shift its mindset.

“I’m a member of the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat which is the largest global organisation for tall buildings,” Timpson said.

“Listening to foreign investors in London, they see London as safe place to build buildings (go up in value) and that’s why we have been building so many. Over the recent past, they have been seeing us as safe deposit boxes that you can build a building in London and it will automatically go up in value.

“That has led to a culture of cheaper and quicker and throwing buildings up as quick as you can. Design and build is a perfect example of that.

“Within that race to throw these buildings up at almost any cost, we have seen – in my opinion – a decline in standards.

“I’m a great fan of modern methods of construction. Let’s use technology to its full extent.

“But let’s not disconnect fire safety from that equation. It’s a holistic approach which must take into account all aspects of the build if it’s the insulation, if it’s the accessibility, if it’s the profile of the occupants. It can’t be done in isolation with the masters of speed and cheapness protecting the safety levels of the buildings. You’ve got to build better buildings. They have got to be more resilient buildings.

“That’s something that London should reflect upon. Certainly, that’s what I am reading in the London plan that came out this month. There are some great words in there about how we should build buildings.

“I hope that is reflected in the changes which we are going to see going forward.”