Building Better is a National Housing Federation-backed alliance of 30 housing associations and local authorities. Set up in 2018, Building Better is helping members come together so they can procure high quality, sustainable offsite homes, at the right price, confident in the fact that these homes will meet their customers’ needs.
Having recently joined Building Better and as part of their member profile series, Alex Whittle, Senior Project Manager at Magenta Living in our Development team, was interviewed by them to find out our drivers, our challenges, and our plans for the future.
Why did you join Building Better?
One of the biggest challenges for us was making Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) work from a procurement perspective, so we had a compliant route to market. I was tasked with finding a viable framework and we chose Building Better because it felt like much more than just a procurement framework. There’s the opportunity to interact with existing members - we recently met with Platform Housing and Halton Housing - and you get a feel for their journey. There’s a real knowledge void around MMC in the sector and Building Better offers a platform to exchange information and experiences.
What are your drivers behind MMC?
Magenta Living’s overarching objective for MMC is to make its asset portfolio fit for the future, so we’re not building something today that’s put on the retrofit register in the next 25 years. Whilst other housing providers are taking a strong development approach to MMC, our focus isn’t on delivering large volumes of MMC homes straight away. We’re taking small, considered steps, learning and upskilling our team, all with a firm focus on sustainability and retrofit targets.
What MMC schemes are you developing?
We’ve delivered three MMC dwellings so far. We’re also working with a local MMC Category 2 supplier on a few other small schemes – two on garage sites and another on a brownfield site. We’re only putting 6 – 8 MMC homes on these sites, but now Magenta Living is part of the Building Better framework we’re looking at sites more strategically and using knowledge from Trina Chakravarti and Tony Woods at Procurement for Housing, plus other members, to deliver more MMC homes across Wirral.
What challenges have you seen around MMC?
The biggest thing is contractor insolvency ratio, with Magenta experiencing around one insolvency event each year over the past five years. That can be difficult in terms of the misconceptions that people understandably develop, particularly in terms of MMC being a new market. Building Better have helped us challenge negative perspectives around MMC. They have a fantastic relationship with suppliers and do a lot of due diligence with constant health checks – making sure that manufacturers are delivering to high standards. We’ve also spoken to other housing providers openly and honestly about concerns around suppliers. Doing it this way and talking objectively means that it’s not just chit chat about a supplier. Building Better gives us the platform to do that and it really helps to challenge misconceptions.
Tell us about the internal education work you’ve been doing around MMC
MMC can be a puzzle within housing organisations with certain pieces across different teams not fitting together. For instance, if a tenant puts a TV on the wall and they make a bad job of it in an MMC home, does that affect its thermal performance? How should the asset team deal with it?
When the housing management team signs up new tenants to a MMC home, it’s important for someone to be on site to show them how to use the heating system and look after the property. That process will be different from signing tenants up to a normal 1960s 3-bed house.
I’ve also had discussions with the finance team when I’ve taken MMC schemes for approval. Some of the time these schemes are more expensive and it’s about improving understanding, demystifying MMC and rationalising costs – in terms of maintenance and retrofit savings down the line.
We’re trying to make all these puzzle pieces fit by reappraising the approval parameters around financial viability and removing assumptions attached to traditional homes that aren’t relevant to an MMC build.
What benefits have you seen through working with Building Better?
We’ve just recruited a Land and Planning Manager with the expectation that when we’re strategically bringing on more sites, MMC is at the forefront. Previously we’d be looking at a site and thinking ‘MMC or not?’, using our internal knowledge and it would often take 6 – 8 months because the quality of information around whether it would be suitable for MMC just wasn’t there. But with our new Land and Planning Manager working with Building Better, we can tap into strong expertise and within a few weeks work out whether a piece of land is suitable for MMC or not. So, we’ll see a speed benefit, getting a yes or no on land options.
Building Better are also helping us to develop an MMC specification. For years, Magenta Living has been delivering traditional timber and masonry homes and we have a working specification that captures how we want our dwellings to operate, from their performance level to the number on the front door. But MMC is a different product, and we are open to new ideas and suggestions. Building Better are sense checking our new specification. Having their input will give me confidence when presenting it back internally.
What about the future?
One of our wider strategic aims is to invest in some of Wirral’s most deprived areas. This is where there’s alignment between our wider regeneration work with Wirral Council and our development objectives as a housing provider. We see MMC playing a part in that journey and Building Better will help us realise that – driving down costs, testing contractor competency and making sure we have the right contractor fit for regeneration projects.