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3 Dec

The Pitfalls of a Thoroughly Modern Method …

Over the Summer, many around the world were astounded to see entire emergency hospitals and quarantine facilities being planned, constructed and signed off in record time as rapid solutions were sought to counter increasingly stretched hospital resources brought on by the global pandemic.

 

In Wuhan, the source of the outbreak, the 25,000 sq ft, 1,000 bed Wuhan Huoshenshan Hospital was constructed in ten days, and here in the UK we saw phase one of construction of the new NHS Nightingale hospital in East London completed in just nine. These are just two examples of modern methods of construction (MMC) in action, and in particular, the practice of pre-fabrication of essential building components (or entire buildings) in an off-site location for assembly in-situ.

 

Now the term MMC itself is a bit of a misnomer, though many materials and practices used in construction are state of the art, such as building printing, the term also encompasses techniques that have been around for decades, for example, it may surprise you to learn that pre-fabrication goes back to the early 19th century, and as for some of the materials, such as timber, well they go back even further. So, what makes MMC ‘modern’?

 

There is no single agreed definition for MMC, but one of the key principles is that the manufacture of the build is advanced to a significant state in a controlled environment such as a factory, away from the site itself, either in the country, or even overseas.

 

This could include some of the more basic structural components such as structural insulated panels, or SIPS, or more complete structures as we saw with the modular construction of the NHS Nightingale hospital.

 

MMC have seen a significant increase over recent years for a number of reasons including the ability to quickly meet a growing demand for affordable housing, better and more strenuous quality control and adherence to evolving building regulations, and a greater focus on embedding environmentally sound processes during construction.

 

Cost versus benefit

But despite the clear benefits of using MMC for the developer, there are costly risks associated with these methods and it is these I’d like to focus on.

 

The most common construction material in these builds is still timber, preferred due to its relative low cost and versatility, but highly vulnerable to fire as well as both weather and escape of water related water damage. We’re seeing little or no additional risk management factors being built in at either the manufacture or site construction stage, for example fire or water retardants, non-flammable insulation, additional on-site security or weather management procedures; and with potentially hundreds of properties worth of materials being stored closely together on the site, one wrong move could lead to an incredibly costly construction claim before the build has even ’got off the ground’.  In this regard we risk repeating the mistakes of timber frame construction we saw commencing at the turn of this century, when building regulations were relaxed to allow a proliferation in the construction of larger timber frame buildings without proper research into the risks of the build or the appropriate measures put in place to manage these risks.

 

The practice of constructing off-site and assembling in-situ also necessitates a greater use of handling and transportation risk, particularly if packaging and preparation for transit (and potentially thereafter for extended periods of on-site storage) haven’t been designed to minimise such risks.

 

Modular buildings have very low levels of inter-changeability, particularly larger scale buildings; once they are installed, they are often simply not designed to be removed individually.  This gives rise to a host of new risks and paves the way for higher costs should repair or replacement be required.

Firstly, most modules are designed to the same specification as a full unit and signed off as such, complying with a number of different safety regulations; removing, refitting or altering any element of the build could fundamentally alter the structural integrity of the build, for example removing the certain doors designed as firebreaks or introducing new materials not part of the original specification.  These could all leave the building vulnerable to risk later down the line and with a less clear indication of ultimate liability, is it the property owner?  The building contractor? The tenant? The materials supplier? The designer or architect?

 

What should you be asking your client?

These are just a couple of the risk factors that can translate to higher claims costs for the insurer, both during construction and after occupation. For brokers, it’s becoming increasingly important to familiarise yourself with the different methods and materials being used by developers and understand how these processes quantitatively impact the risk being presented.

 

Brokers should be asking their clients to confirm; fire risks and management of those risks, with a careful focus on flammable material usage or the use of heat during construction or maintenance. The water risk, and risks relating to both the escape of water and weather perils including, the types of plumbing systems used and the length of time assets will be open to the elements. The interchangeability of modules, and whether replacement parts and modules are available quickly at nominal cost. Any supply chain and storage risks and lastly the experience of both the contractor and architect in relation to the particular design being proposed and their prior successes in implementation.

 

If you need any guidance or support for your construction risks or have any questions, please get in touch with the team on 020 3941 7700 or contact us here.

 

To view our range of construction products click here.

 


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