Construction journalist and civil engineer, Bruce Meechan gives his perspective on the challenges, and opportunities, presented by the pandemic disruption.


Many commentators as well as Government Ministers are using the phrase ‘new normal’ in reference to the way we will have to live, work and shop for years to come because of the continuing threat posed by Covid-19: the most globally lethal pandemic since the Spanish Flu claimed millions of lives in the aftermath of World War One.

For those of us who have spent our careers in construction, however, there is a justifiable sense of déjà vu regards the impacts of the virus. Yet again our industry has been at the economic epicentre of a recession that has shut sites, closed companies and cost countless workers their jobs.

While many UK businesses simply told their staff to stay away from the office, for tradespeople who spend their days wearing hard hats and steel toecaps, working from home simply wasn’t an option – you just can’t lay bricks on Zoom. Meanwhile those whose building projects were sanctioned as essential, ran the risk of catching the virus by simply travelling to work – a danger made worse in the capital where the posturing mayor chose to cram people into fewer Tube trains.

Now though, with the infection rate apparently receding, and the longest days of summer upon us, building sites and businesses generally are reopening. What then are the prospects for those of us whose livelihoods are dependent on new build developments, RMI work and infrastructure schemes?

As I count this as my fourth recession since I left polytechnic in 1979 and began work with George Wimpey, I believe there are a number of reasons for optimism.

Firstly, it should be noted that the economy was actually in pretty good shape as we began the year, with record numbers of people in employment, the stock market surging and most businesses in a bullish mood. Even die-hard Remainers and lifelong Labour voters must have felt relief at ending three years of parliamentary deadlock.

For everyone apart from a few Chinese scientists and communist party officials, the Coronavirus came completely out of the blue. Even in February as reports were leaking out from this secretive society, and the early cases were occurring in the West, the idea of a pandemic bringing everything to a halt seemed implausible.

Then the pubs shut and the rookie Chancellor had to conjure up an unprecedented rescue package for the economy. And as we peeped out at empty streets, or cursed empty supermarket shelves, the equally green new Bank of England Governor blithely predicted a V-shaped recovery.

According to economists now, we’re looking at a U-profile and, bizarrely, the Footsie has seen its best three-month rise for a decade, with some ‘green shoots’ emerging globally. In the US – where Covid-19 devastated many states – unemployment peaked well short of the worst predictions, while the IMF fancies China will bounce by 8% next year.

From a personal perspective I can report that not only did hardware stores stay open to service the lockdown lust for DIY, but a lot of independent merchants and small builders barely paused their activities.

Undoubtedly the building industry benefits from a can-do attitude, which shames our teaching unions and professions such as dentistry (for whom infection control should be a given at all times), who have sat back complaining about lack of clarity from Ministers.

By contrast, most of our major housebuilders had begun recalling middle management and site safety officers in May or earlier, to devise strategies for safe working. And while the clothes retailers were agonising over the viability of quarantining any clothes customers might try on, Taylor Wimpey was announcing a £500 million land purchasing spree, and committing to pay back the taxpayer money it had received under the furlough scheme. TW boss, Pete Redfern said: “We have seen robust demand throughout the lockdown and have been encouraged by the continued resilience of the housing market.” Redrow is another top housebuilder pledging to hand back billions.

I was further impressed to hear from Chris Hamlett, the MD of northwest based main contractor, Armstrong Projects, who told me his company had only furloughed one worker: an individual with a long term respiratory condition. Other staff had been retrained to work under the safe distancing guidelines and related restrictions, as well as to cover special inspection disciplines temporarily not available via normal channels.

Not only had Armstrong Projects’ three main sites in Manchester, Warrington and Crewe all continued, but the group has recruited two new employees to help launch a venture called Pod Life; building home offices for customers through the adoption of an ICF system.

The latter is of particular significance, because offsite technologies would seem ideally suited to addressing many of the obstacles which Covid-19 requirements pose for traditional building techniques.

We have known since the Eden Report shone a light on our industry’s failings two decades ago that system building increases productivity, predictability and quality of outcome, while reducing defects and injuries to personnel. Now there is the added bonus that transferring operations offsite and into a controlled factory environment should mitigate the chances of transmitting the virus.

The Prime Minister’s speech at a West Midlands plant this week not only pledged £5 billion to build new schools, hospitals, housing and infrastructure, but to build “Better, greener and faster,” with a revolution in UK technology to the fore. Modern and mainly offsite methods of construction must be the best way to deliver on those promises.

Finally, let us remember how this crisis came about, and where it came from.

The Government is rightly backtracking on involving Huawei in our 5G network – which posed a real threat to national security and access to Five Eyes intelligence sharing – and is also reviewing China’s role in our nuclear energy programme. A direct, multi-billion pound beneficiary of the latter should be the consortium involving Rolls Royce and major construction companies, seeking to deliver modular nuclear reactors for sites around the country, and even for export.

One thing the pandemic and the connected PPE shortages has demonstrated is the imperative for our country to be self-sufficient in essentials; including low carbon energy. I would argue, therefore, that our corporations and our communities should look to UK manufacturers as well as our own construction companies to deliver the properties and infrastructure we need for everyday life to continue: whatever that new normal looks like.

MMC editor Joe Bradbury catches up with offsite expert Brian Maunder, Totally Modular to discuss the current state of the industry.


The housing sector looks bleak; a recent landmark review from homelessness charity ‘Shelter’ stated that we need to build three million social homes to solve the housing crisis – a shameful blight on our country in this, the technological age. Fuel poverty statistics increase unabated, with more than one in 10 households now living in fuel poverty. Regardless of your stance on how we get the job done, one thing we can all agree on is that we need to build more homes.

We need to build more homes to free those trapped in the private rental market and reverse the decay of social mobility in this country. We need to build more homes so that the estimated figure of 320,000 homeless people in the UK today decreases, rather than increases, as it is doing currently. We need to diversify the types of houses we build and how we build them because miles and miles of characterless new builds (some lacking in even the most basic fire protection) will not do. Spuriously ticking the affordable housing box via a loophole isn’t good enough. Britain deserves better.

A major review by housing charity Shelter, commissioned in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster, suggested that an additional three million social homes and an investment of £214bn in a 20-year housebuilding programme is needed to solve the housing crisis. Specifically, the report called for 1.27 million homes for those in greatest housing need, 1.17 million homes for younger families who cannot afford to buy and 690,000 homes for older private renters struggling with high housing costs beyond retirement.

How can we change it?

Modular and volumetric building has been gaining momentum over the last few years and now it is widely accepted that the future will need to incorporate more modular technology to meet bustling demand. Recently, the Government pledged an extra £5 billion to build 25,000 more homes by 2020 on top of their housing target and 225,000 in the longer term, utilising offsite at the core of each build programme. But it still isn’t enough.


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MMC Magazine headed over to the Black Country to meet with Totally Modular Sales Manager Brian Maunder for a tour around their factory and a talk about the industry.

Totally Modular builds houses in a factory and transports them to site on an articulated lorry, where they are craned onto pre-laid foundations. The houses leave the factory virtually complete and can be already fitted out with kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms; they can even have built-in furniture, so are ready for occupancy.

All that needs to be done on site is lower the house onto its foundations and connect it up for power, gas, water and sewage. This usually only takes a few hours and then they are ready to hand over keys to the front door.

The houses are built around a strong steel space frame and can be clad in virtually any building material including brick, render, timber or a mix of these. Thus, they can be designed to match existing local houses, appear traditional or be at the cutting edge of a modern architectural style. They are double-glazed and highly insulated as standard so that they meet the most demanding energy efficiency requirements.

Totally Modular makes houses in several different sizes and layouts. They can be detached, semi-detached or terraced. Further, the company also applies the same design principle to building modular apartment units which can be stacked to create blocks of flats.

Brian also took us over to Dudley College to see ‘advance II’, a new Centre for Advanced Building Technologies. Advance II provides skills development in high level Building Services Engineering, Civil Engineering, Construction Design and Building Information Modelling. It is the first of its kind in the FE sector offering students training in the latest construction techniques.

Much of the curriculum is driven by both industry needs and the Government’s agenda on low carbon – both for new build and retrofitting of existing buildings – to meet targets. The new materials, products and technologies involved mean new skills are required.

  1. Q) Brian, what is the biggest misconception surrounding offsite construction?
  2. A) That it costs less! Modular construction isn’t a cheaper alternative to traditional build, and should not be pitted as such. This type of thinking is actually preventative in delivering more homes using modern methods of construction.

Modular construction is an important part of the solution to how we tackle the housing crisis. We cannot meet demand with traditional methods alone – neither should we aim to.

We should build more homes offsite because it is the right thing to do. Because it generates less waste, takes less time, requires fewer materials, and creates healthier and more efficient homes. Offsite is better for our environment… and the environment affects us all!

  1. Q) In what capacity will modular building best serve to tackle the housing crisis?
  2. A) By increasing speed of delivery and improving the quality of homes there will be a lot less snagging issues. Modular construction is safer too, with less risk of accidents in factory compared to building sites. Less wastage also means better green credentials, and as only ground preparation is done on site it offers less local disruption. Offsite is the perfect method in which to innovate and move forward; it is much easier to implement technology such as Solar PV battery storage into a run of houses made in factory than on-site.
  3. Q) What obstacles do we need to overcome in order to deliver the homes sorely needed in Britain today?
  4. A) The culture of traditional delivery needs to change. Basic ignorance about modern materials and methods that can be used is sadly still rife. Social housing providers are still struggling to commit. Financial modelling is not taking account of the total benefits available or attributing any cost savings as a result of cost certainty, lack of weather delays etc.

The industry needs to stop trying to push offsite as a cheaper alternative and start educating people that offsite construction needs to happen more, it is the conscious and responsible thing to do for the people of our country, and the wider world overall.

There’s room for both traditional and modern methods of construction within the market. They must support one another, not compete. Britain needs healthy homes. Offsite is a big part of the solution.

In summary

Meeting with Brian was refreshing. There’s nothing negative about deeply embracing a problem and trying to understand how we fix it. From my own personal experience as an editor within the construction industry I have witnessed a lot of false positivity surrounding modular construction – which only serves to hold us back as a sector.

E3G and National Energy Action revealed recently that there were over 17,000 deaths due to cold housing conditions last winter and almost twice as many people died compared to the previous winter. Last winter’s excess winter mortality in the UK was the highest since 1976. There are an estimated 250,000 people homeless in Britain today. People are dying in cold homes and on the streets and yet we can create an air tight houses en masse in a matter of days within a factory.

Its time people started putting their money where their mouth is and commit to making things better. Construction needs to change… and begins within.

By Andrew Thomas Chair of the International Hearing Access Committee (IHAC)

The building industry has long been aware of the need to create spaces that are accessible, and now the focus is on environments that are inclusive and integrate everyone’s needs.

Assistive listening technology is an essential part of inclusive design to make sure public buildings offer access to the 1 in 6 of the population who have hearing loss.

With a range of solutions available, and the growing popularity among individual users of digital options, it can be tempting to think that well-established technologies like hearing loops may be out of date and installing them now would be a waste of time and money.

The options

Induction or hearing loops are technology that originated in the 1950s yet despite their age, they still offer the best solution. They are the easiest system to use and the only one which is truly universal.

Specifiers can be reluctant to install these systems for fear they will be superseded by one of the burgeoning digital technologies in the very near future.

That’s not the case.

How hearing loops work

Hearing loop systems consist of copper cables, often concealed around the perimeter of a room, that transmit electromagnetic signals from a microphone or other sound source.

Telecoil couplers are small copper wire coils integrated in most hearing aids and cochlear implants. They pick up these electromagnetic signals enabling the user to hear the sound source clearly, cutting out distracting background noise.

For example, a delegate attending a conference may struggle to hear the presentation because of distance, reverberation and background noise in the room. With a hearing loop, they are able to hear the speaker’s voice clearly.

Their energy efficiency means they can be continually running, giving users access at any time. They are universal so no matter where in the world the hearing aid wearer comes from, they will be able to use them. Loops also have no latency which is critical when following an event where images or actions come together with sound.

Infrared and radio frequency systems are also widely used. These can cover large areas and are easier to retro fit but they do require accessories for the user to receive the sound. Their range can also be affected by bright sunlight, glass surfaces or congestion on the bandwidth the system is using.

The future?

Bluetooth offers wireless communication and its development already gives people with hearing loss a number of benefits. However, these are currently only on a personal level and not for large groups, or one to one situations, in public spaces.

Bluetooth can amplify the television or audio sources for users at home, and smartphone apps allow levels in their hearing aids to be altered with one touch.

But the accessories and the hearing aids have to be compatible and different brands won’t work with each other, making them unsuitable for groups of people.

The industry is working on developing a system that will offer standardised Bluetooth technology to allow people with hearing aids to connect to smart devices.

An agreement was formed between the European Hearing Instrument Manufacturers Association (EHIMA) and Bluetooth Special Interest Group in 2014 to work together towards this.

However, Bluetooth’s development into a system that can serve groups of people in large areas is some way off.

According to the International Hearing Access Committee, a body comprising hearing aid manufacturers and consumer organisations, there’s unlikely to be significant change within the next 10 – 15 years and beyond.


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As well as a consensus of opinion needing to be reached on the preferred system, it would need to be thoroughly tested and then widely adopted before it could be regarded as mature and fit for use. A bandwidth for the signal to use would also need to be agreed.

In the meantime, public buildings need to comply with the requirements of the Equality Act and, ideally, the best practice recommendations for creating inclusive spaces as contained in BS8300.

Hearing loops still offer a simple and effective way to offer hearing access, and installed by a specialist engineer, they transform communication at hotel reception desks, conference rooms, at a retail service counter, in a theatre auditorium or a place of worship.

Planning an installation now, or for years to come, will not be a wasted investment whether for a new build or retrofit.

Totalling 11 million, people with hearing loss constitute the largest disabled group in the UK. And with an ageing population their numbers will continue to grow, so there is a clear business case for meeting their needs.

The wheel may be ’old’ technology but it is yet to be overtaken by hoverboards, jet packs or drones as a superior technology to move things from A to B.



Andrew Thomas is the Chair of the International Hearing Access Committee (IHAC) and the International Hearing Aid Manufacturers Association (IHLMA).

He is also the is the Market Development Director of Contacta Systems Ltd and has more than 30 years’ experience in the sector.

England is short of four million homes. There are at least 320,000 homeless people throughout Britain and over a million on housing waiting lists. Needless to say, the housebuilding industry needs to change. The only way this can happen is if we look in on ourselves and our own behaviour and acknowledge our shortcomings; something that is hard to do. MMC Editor Joe Bradbury investigates.

The bad news is that the UK construction industry is currently responsible for 45% of total UK carbon emissions, 32% of all landfill waste and is responsible for more water pollution incidents than any other industry. The good news is that we have the knowledge, skills and technology to facilitate real change in the world, when we put our minds to it. Implementing offsite construction into the housebuilding sector could be the catalyst.

Waste not, want not

One of the key factors that will either seal our reputation as innovators or sully it indefinitely is the materials we use and how we choose to use them. With an unprecedented shortage of housing in this country, it is clear to see that despite what construction industry doomsayers print, the UK has a voracious appetite for housing that isn’t going away any time soon.

The construction industry is the largest consumer of natural resources in the UK today; a stark point that highlights just how high up on the agenda reconsideration of our building practices should be. The impact of our materials usage on the environment in of itself is staggering; a recent report by Willmott Dixon Group suggested that the construction industry alone is accountable for around 45-50% of global energy usage, nearly 50% of worldwide water usage, and around 60% of the total usage of raw materials.

The benefits of adopting more considerate ways to use materials are far-reaching. Take FSC-approved timber as just one of many examples; manufacturers who use forest products that are FSC approved can do so with confidence, safe in the knowledge that they are helping to ensure our forests are alive and well for generations to come. But the benefits are also far more immediate and closer to home than that; wood is a natural, renewable material, used often in modular building. It offsets our carbon footprint and offers significant thermal efficiency, keeping energy bills low. For the four million people in Britain living in fuel poverty today, building more energy efficient homes using modern methods of construction is urgent. Interestingly, if housing targets were met through timber-frame construction alone, new build homes in the UK would serve as carbon ‘banks’, capturing and storing nearly 4 million tonnes of CO2 every year.

Better for the environment

According to ‘The Waste and Resources Action Programme’, offsite construction can generate up to 90% less waste than traditional onsite building methods. This is largely because a factory is a much more controlled environment than a traditional building site – with far fewer variables

Modular construction offers a greater degree of reusability; buildings can often be disassembled and moved to another site entirely if necessary. They can be shifted and repurposed when required. However, should a modular building find itself no longer fit for requirement as it stands, many of its components can be salvaged and re-used in another project, reducing the need for fresh new materials in each new build. This reduction in materials usage protects depleting stock of resources whilst simultaneously lowering waste.

Offsite construction is far less energy intensive than traditional housebuilding methods. The carbon footprint left by the many construction vehicles and machinery on the site of a traditional construction project alone is considerably larger than that of modular construction. Put simply, fewer vehicles involved and less time spent on site results in less greenhouse gases being released into our environment.

And due to being built away from the construction site, modern methods of construction such as offsite and modular are a great way to reduce and control noise levels, causing less disruption to the environment and the people around it.

To summarise

The positive effects of modular construction on the housebuilding industry cannot be overstated, and with the UK Environment Agency and other government bodies putting increasing pressure on construction companies to reduce pollution and conform to environmental regulations, it is clear to see that change is imminent – embrace the future, build homes offsite.