The Trowers view from... Manchester CIH 2019
For those involved in residential development, technology was the name of the game at the Chartered Institute of Housing's 2019 Annual Conference in Manchester.
From digital design, to the procurement of buildings using modern methods of construction (MMC), to smart homes incorporating the latest building management systems; the buzz was very 21st century. At one point, a speaker referred to a piece of kit arriving on site being greeted by the construction team "as if it had landed from Venus".
For a sector that has been challenged to "modernise or die", there was no place to hide and even the few stands devoted to traditional brick-built homes were doing their best to embrace a digital future. I don't think I have ever attended a real estate event where the words "data", "software" and "digital" were more prominently displayed.
The principal message from the conference was that we are on the cusp of an exciting, modern world of building procurement, construction and operation; and whilst the cognoscenti have already embraced it, not everybody is there just yet.
For a start, the UK (as Boris Johnson has been at pains to stress during his Tory leadership campaign), currently lacks the fibre-optic infrastructure needed to lay the path for smart homes. As was stressed at one of the presentations within the Tech@Housing programme ("Homes are becoming smart. Are you ready for the digital revolution?") the UK is currently languishing in 33rd place in the world in the delivery of fibre-optic cables capable of delivering smart home technology. In Europe, the only country that is currently performing worse than the UK is Greece. There is an ambition to lay one gigabyte cables nationwide, but such a massive undertaking will take a long time.
However, for as many familiar challenges as are still facing this brave new world, there are some extraordinarily exciting new entrants. By way of one example is Kreo, an AI-powered designer and engineer using cloud-based 4D and 5D BIM software to generate quantities, estimate costs, produce Gantt charts and 4D simulations, run scenarios and price bids. The potential of this technology will blow the socks off of anyone who has experienced the grind of a planning submission. Kreo boast that currently, they can digitally produce RIBA Stage 3 drawings within a couple of hours and expect within a matter of months to be able to produce RIBA Stage 5 drawings within a day. Developers will be salivating at the prospect of potentially getting from site acquisition to planning stage to site (or, rather, to factory) within days. Local planning departments may be feeling less excited about this prospect, but there is no reason that the streamlining of design and applications should not be embraced by them also.
The MMC stage, which was sponsored by Trowers', along with ilke Homes and NHBC, saw a constant stream of presentations and engaging debates. Hosted in a teepee constructed especially for the occasion, Mark Farmer of Cast Consultancy kicked off proceedings with a typically motivational challenge: "The future is here and now, are you ready?". The teepee then saw a string of Trowers' partners sharing the stage with some of the leading players in the MMC sector - Rebecca Rees ("Buying with confidence: lessons learned from procurement"), Katie Saunders ("Masterclass: how to work with volumetric products") and Paul Bartter and David Cordery (launching Trowers' latest report on offsite manufactured housing, (Funding MMC: Separating Fact from Fiction), before Housing Minister Kit Malthouse took the stage. The Minister re-enforced government's firm belief that, after a few false starts over the years, the time was right for MMC to finally establish itself as a viable method of delivering the projected 300,000+ homes that the UK will need to deliver annually to address its housing shortage.
Katie Saunders and David Cordery also participated in the soft launch of The Housing Forum's MMC guide to modern methods of construction for affordable housing developers, to which Trowers has contributed content to the sections on procurement and contract forms. The full guide is due to launch next month.
Trowers' efforts were not limited to the MMC stage; Katie was part of an informative panel discussion examining the issues around maintenance of MMC homes; Julian Keith took part in a best practice session on strategic land and Tonia Secker and Suzanne Benson chaired sessions on homelessness ("How is the sector rising to its challenge?") and placemaking (Regenerating and future proofing our town centre), respectively.
The good news is that, after years where technology, infrastructure and the supply chain were playing catch-up to the ambition shown by the market leaders, the market is finally on the verge of delivering on its potential.