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Why can't we discuss MMC when things go wrong?

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It is clearly vital that architects and developers fully learn and discuss the lessons of pioneering schemes like Oxley Woods, writes Will Hurst

Will Hurst

How can an industry innovate if it refuses to learn from its mistakes? That is the unsaid question left hanging over the future of modern methods of construction (MMC) in housebuilding this week following a damning technical report on Oxley Woods, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ landmark 2007 MMC housing scheme in Milton Keynes.

The comprehensive report, produced last month by housing consultant GHPC and exclusively revealed by the AJ, was commissioned by the scheme’s housebuilder Taylor Wimpey and lays bare ongoing defects in many of the homes in the 122-unit scheme, which was part of the last Labour government’s high-profile Design for Manufacture contest.

These include the scheme’s distinctive Trespa panels becoming detached and leakage problems which are so serious that 16 residents have lodged claims with the development’s insurer, the National House Building Council (NHBC).

It is now clear that previous media reports on Oxley Woods seriously underestimated the extent of the defects there - a feature last year on the project in this magazine, for example, talked about issues faced by initial residents and ‘teething problems’.

But the muted reaction to the new findings suggests an underlying reason for this: that no one - neither the industry which produced the homes nor the residents who live in them - can see the value in discussing such bad news - and that in itself is a problem.

Housebuilding in the UK is currently enjoying its longest run of growth since before the financial crisis and yet traditional methods of supply, such as brick production, have been decimated by the recession. As a result, housebuilders are looking to other approaches, including MMC, to meet demand, and this will only increase if attempts to boost the housing supply come to fruition.

With that in mind, it is clearly vital that architects and developers fully learn and discuss the lessons, both good and bad, of pioneering and therefore risky schemes like Oxley Woods, which utilise prefabrication, off-site assembly and other techniques.

While the homeowners in Oxley Woods are thankfully protected by the comprehensive insurance offered by the NHBC, it is understandable that they might wish to avoid drawing attention to the problems with their homes for fear of making them harder to sell.

What is less forgivable is the lack of response or severely limited response from others involved in this tale - and particularly from the RIBA, which in 2008 awarded Oxley Woods the Manser Medal for housing design, a decision which now seems more than a little questionable.

Back then, the award judges criticised the ‘all-too risk-averse conventional housebuilders’ market’, calling Oxley Woods a ‘radical, innovative and … outstanding step away from the traditional mud and mess of the domestic building site’.

Questioned about it by the AJ this week, RIBA head of awards Tony Chapman echoed that sentence almost word for word adding: ‘It is not unusual for even the most well-designed buildings to experience maintenance and construction issues during their lifetime; RIBA has never rescinded an award for these reasons.’

So there you have it: despite its professed championing of sustainable housing, post-occupancy evaluation and its consideration of a ‘test-of-time’ award to highlight good performance of buildings a decade after completion (AJ 27.06.13), the RIBA appears to think defending its own prize-giving record is more important than learning lessons about an approach that could help its own members tackle the UK’s housing crisis.

will.hurst@emap.com Twitter: @WHurst1


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