Can MMC quality reduce fire risk in buildings?

Mary McCollum of Sapphire Balconies explains how the quality control possible through modern methods of construction (MMC) can reduce fire risk in buildings – particularly when installing balconies.

Modern methods of construction (MMC) may hold the key to a myriad of industry woes, and key players are increasingly turning to offsite construction for solutions. MMC offers improved efficiency, quality control, and cost savings, among many other appealing benefits.

In the wake of numerous balcony fires, the Hackitt review, and drastic regulation changes, reducing fire risk in residential buildings is at the forefront of the minds of many throughout the supply chain. Not only is compliance with the latest regulations made difficult due to a lack of explicit and specific guidance, but with this guidance in a state of continuous evolution, the industry is left in a position of hesitation, anticipating further developments.

But how does MMC relate to reducing fire risk in residential buildings? Primarily, the benefit lies in the substantial improvement in quality control.

A key takeaway from the Hackitt review was the need for higher levels of quality control. Hackitt pushed for clearer chains of responsibility with a top level ‘duty holder’ to be responsible for the safety of individual buildings. For said duty holder to verify the safety standards of all elements involved in a building, step-by-step quality checks must be carried out with a traceable history. These standards are integral to modular construction, but far more challenging with traditional methods.

Traditional methods of construction have always been plagued by the dramatic variation between different workers, and the results of their labour not meeting the specification. Understanding becomes diluted as the information is distilled from the intention at the design stage to the onsite interpretation of it. Variation in skill, time and conditions can result in dangerous inconsistencies.

With traditional construction, quality standards and fire safety are dependent on the complete synergy of a multitude of trades interfacing with each other. Achieving this level of cooperation and smoothness of project programme is extremely difficult, and costly delays are common.

Offsite construction, on the other hand, benefits from consistency along the production line, and controlled conditions reduce the opportunity for error. Factory environments entail regular checks allowing faults to be found and remedied. Highly trained specialised workers can work with the support of supervisors without the complications brought by being onsite.

Traditionally, balconies rely heavily on onsite finishing and install work, from concrete balconies cast entirely onsite, to steel framed bolt-on balconies which often claim the MMC title while relying heavily on onsite labour. With pre-finished modular balconies, a holistic approach to production is achieved and quality standards are maintained, just like car production.

Limiting inconsistency reduces a range of risk factors, including fire spread. Ineffective firestopping for example can leave hollows which can act as chimneys, allowing fires to spread more readily with greater risk to life and property. In a controlled factory environment these oversights can be avoided far more consistently.

Another fundamental aspect of volumetric modular construction is the high level of design specification required. Especially when adopted early on, balcony design costs and common issues can be significantly reduced.

At the design stage, improvements and lessons learned from previous projects can be applied consistently across all modules and components. For example, a fire stopping solution like a StubGuard is CNC manufactured for the bespoke stub and interface. The design is intended to avoid gaps in the firestopping, and because it’s moulded for the specific stub, it cannot be installed incorrectly. A modular approach provides the benefits of CNC machined products and avoids the variations and issues of high labour products.

Other risk reducing measures can also be implemented at design stage, such as soffits in modular balconies, ensuring uniformity across the project. Soffits help to stop fire spread by containing balcony fires and preventing falling embers reaching the balcony below and blocking flames from reaching the balcony above. With some MMC modular balconies, soffits are installed offsite and arrive prefinished and ready to be quickly installed, avoiding the traditional need for time consuming soffit fitting and improving programme costs.

Balcony construction is critical for fire spread prevention, as they are often the space used for smoking and even barbecues. With modular solutions, measures to reduce the risk of fire spread can be included at design stage, making the process more efficient and cost effective.

MMC has often been used inaccurately as more of a buzzword than a range of innovative solutions to industry challenges. But if these modern methods were implemented successfully, they may revolutionise the industry and have the potential to transform the landscape to meet modern demands.

Developers like Berkeley, L&Q and Barratt are among the key early adopters to embrace MMC within their business model, with significant investment. Others are gaining the benefits of offsite production by working with expert supply chain partners – innovative experts within the supply chain bring the benefits of MMC without the capital investment and logistical challenges of radically transforming project processes.

Mary McCollum is marketing executive at Sapphire Balustrades