Taking Modular Construction Mainstream

Season 2, EP 11: Gaynor Tennant

Show Notes

As the Co-Founder and Chair of The Offsite Alliance, and non-executive director of Modularize, Gaynor Tennant understands the huge upsides of modular construction better than almost anyone in the industry.

“In construction, we drop a load of raw materials onto a site, with hand-drawn drawings, and ask a team that have never met each other to assemble that into a product that resembles the drawings.”

In this episode Gaynor shares her experience working with over 180 offsite construction companies, digging into her experience in dealing with government and challenges they face in striving to promote the use of offsite construction.


Ciaran Brennan

We like to start these things off with a bit of context to listeners. Who are we speaking to? What’s your background? How did you end up in modular construction?

Gaynor Tennant

So it’s quite an interesting background. I have been a full time mum, I’ve been a vet nurse, I’ve been a teacher, and I predominantly run businesses. So I was brought into the industry – bit of a shock, really. Landed seven years ago at Modularize and kind of worked my way through Modularize. Learned lots, lots there. And I’m now at the Offsite Alliance.

Ciaran Brennan

What type of businesses have you been running?

Gaynor Tennant

Oh, all sorts. So previously to Modularize, I was running a bakery that grew really fast, really quickly. We would do big occasion cakes. And what really inspired Matt to give me a job at Modularize was the fact that I used to make panelized gingerbread houses. And he went, ah, “That’s off-site construction!”

Why Are Construction Projects So Inefficient Today?

Ciaran Brennan

What I hear a lot of the time from people that have come into construction, they can be struck by certain things. Lack of productivity, lack of technology, stuff like that. Was there anything that you think of that struck you at the time when you entered from one industry into construction?

Gaynor Tennant

I just found the whole industry crazy. It was bonkers. It’s so broken.

And even now I just struggle to get my head around why we’re doing what we’re doing in the manner that we’re doing. And I think we always, in construction, we drop a load of raw materials onto a site with hand drawn drawings for some of the time – hopefully, most of the time, they’re digital drawings.

And then we ask a team that have never met each other to assemble that into a product that resembles the drawings that they probably don’t read terribly well, and then we redesign it to reflect what they did actually build.

So for me, construction is crazy. It just doesn’t make sense. And the blame and the risk and pointing fingers is really awful in the industry, rather than the collaboration and working together that I think we need to really start seeing more of.

About Modularize

Ciaran Brennan

So your first introduction to construction was with Modularize. Can you tell us about that company, what they do, what your day-to-day routine looked like when you first went in there?

Gaynor Tennant

I started as a marketing assistant in a really advanced business. I always say they’re about 20 years ahead of the industry. They design the new products for the offsite market. So whether that’s a school housing system, they work very directly with the factories to design their schemes that they’ve got coming through, and then they do consultancy as well.

So that kind of high level strategy consultancy about how you would go about setting up a factory or how you would go about planning a programme of works for off site. And they’d worked all the way around the world on lots and lots of different projects, even water purification, modularising that.

They’d done sort of bathroom part factories, things like that overseas. And then when I started, we were really fortunate. The market was just picking up in housing, so we had the big factories just starting over here. So I was really fortunate to kind of land a role, eventually doing design coordination. So I worked with the likes of Ilke. I worked for two and a half years with Top Out while they were designing their product. So it was a really good learning curve because I got to go through everything within the business, and I also got to meet all these wonderful people in the industry.

There’s some architects and structural engineers that just took the time to sit with me and teach me the basics that I needed to know. But in a design coordination role, you’re fortunate enough to come across a lot of different walks of life in the construction sector, and I guess that’s helped me get to where I am today and the ability to just learn. Just don’t stop learning, listen, ask questions.

Why Does Construction Need The Offsite Alliance?

Ciaran Brennan

Interesting. So you went then from there into the Offsite Alliance. What prompted you to say, “I need to go and set up an alliance”? Tell us a little bit about the thinking behind forming it and what it is that the Offsite Alliance does on a day-to-day basis.

Gaynor Tennant

So it’s born out of my frustration, really, because we’d worked across probably about 80% of the UK factories and 30% overseas in Modularize. I think they’re in the 12th year now.

It was increasingly frustrating that they weren’t working together or talking or communicating at all, and we’d see the good, bad and ugly at Modularize.

And I just thought, if they were talking and working together, we’d start moving the industry on a little bit faster and they’d start learning from each other. So I held a roundtable in October 2019 in a bid to bring them together.

We had 16 manufacturers at the first, a really good turnout, and then by January 2020, when we held our second, we had 35 manufacturers turn up, along with the likes of the MTC that held it. The Construction Innovation Hub was there as well, so some big names there.

And then we went into the dreaded lockdown in March and had all the factories on the phone going, “My pipeline’s going to dry up and I don’t know what to do.” So we had a meeting set up with Homes England, and we thought we’d try and raise some funds for the sector.

So it was titled the Coronavirus Survival Loan Fund. Very catchy title. And in June 2020, when Boris did his “Build, Build, Build” speech, we found out we’d raised 86 million for the house building fund, because, as it happened, construction kept going, and the factories did quite well out of it.

So then I thought, oh, this is a bit real. There’s a need and a want for an organisation here. So I set the alliance up in July 2020 as a not-for-profit with a large membership body, and it has just kind of spiralled from there.

So we started with the manufacturers and then we opened it up to the wider supply chain. It just didn’t feel at the time that the manufacturers were working with the supply chain terribly well, and there’s so much knowledge within the supply chain.

So we brought them into the equation and now we have every walk of life across the whole value chain of construction, from architects and designers, and we even had lawyers looking at procurement with us. So a really vast and diverse membership.

What Is The Biggest Benefit To A Modular Construction Company Joining The Offsite Alliance?

Ciaran Brennan

What would you say the main benefit would be for, let’s say, an off site company to be a part of the Offsite Alliance?

Gaynor Tennant

I think the main thing that we do is to share knowledge. We actively market our members and the good news stories out there, and then we also advocate for offsite so I think it very much depends where you are in that supply chain. So I always throw it back to my members and say “What is it we can do for you?”

It’s not about us dictating. Yes, we have the events, we have the networking options there, but really it’s really different for every member.

Some want to be key thought leaders and be kind of elevated. Some people want to exhibit and I think the manufacturers themselves, they really need the big high level strategy stuff that we do with government because that’s the pipeline that they need. There is funding there as well that we’ve been working on. That’s really important to get that moving and just become more efficient in what they’re doing.

How Do You Get Construction Companies to Collaborate?

Ciaran Brennan

When I think about traditional construction companies, the collaboration piece is always a little bit funny, isn’t it? Like they, generally speaking, don’t like sharing what they believe could be the trade secrets – it’s a competitive market, you can understand why. How have you found that collaboration piece where construction companies come together that could be competing on one page, but actually getting together to sort of collaborate on the other?

Gaynor Tennant

It’s been really interesting actually, and I think thinking that we’d get our manufacturers working together that were in direct competition just seemed a bit of a dream. But actually they are, they’re willing to work together.

The pipeline that we have hitting the offsite sector at the moment is enormous, absolutely enormous. The government realised we’ve got to increase productivity, we’ve got to look at sustainability and offsite is just a process for me.

So that collaboration and them coming together is a huge, huge benefit of the alliance for them. And some of the things that we’re doing, we’re doing some sort of collecting fire test data and hopefully open sourcing it or licencing it back out with the person that owns it in order to stop making mistakes with fire. In regards to fire, really.

And I think it’s important for the whole construction sector. So we’ve now evolved from just the offsite sector out to the wider construction sector. So we’ve got some of the main contractors coming to us asking us for a bit of help and training on offsite.

And I think that movement towards a different way that people behave and they work more collaboratively is really starting to shift in the industry.

How Is The UK Government Supporting Modular Construction?

Ciaran Brennan

You mentioned government supports there and the COVID supports you got. Where do you feel the government are at in terms of backing off site construction? What’s your take on current state of supports? And what else could we potentially be doing.

Gaynor Tennant

I think the government are really supportive. It is just that process. It’s a process of assembling things in a more efficient manner. So we need the supply chain to develop those components that just click and push the tested, costed parts that just go together like you would see in car automation, really.

We’ve been fortunate enough to have a government that are quite driven towards productivity and efficiency. They understand the need for change. I think there’s still an awful long way to go. I think Homes England and the Department of Levelling Up are really supportive.

Gaynor Tennant

On the house building, I think there’s an MMC strategy in place that I’ve worked alongside, which is absolutely fabulous. And I think the other government departments, there’s a real push that we’re starting to see.

We’ve got a new framework. The Crown Commercial Services Framework has just been announced. There’s an enormous, enormous pipeline there from the DIO, from the MOJ; the DFE obviously had their framework running for a long time and it’s all favouring presumption of offsite because they all know the industry needs to change.

I think, with regards to funding, I think there’s a lot that can be done.

For me, the missing piece of the jigsaw is digitalisation. So really, BIM went so far, it got mandated in 2013 to be adopted by 2016. We’re still using that as a 3d modelling tool. So what we need to do now is see that shift to more product data management and how we’re managing the data through the whole lifecycle of that building as well.

How are people using the building? How do they download information? Do they have an app? Because at the moment we have this broken chain where we have this lovely 3d model that doesn’t go any further. So I think that’s the biggest piece of that shift from construction to manufacturing that we need.

Will Product Codes for Construction Materials be Standardised?

Ciaran Brennan

Do you think that the standardisation of product codes, for example, will be required? Part of what we do with LiveCosts is look at a lot of construction material data, and the standardisation of product codes just makes things so difficult.

Is that something you think is going to eventually have to happen in order for modular to really progress and to have sort of a standardisation of product and a standardisation of delivery of whatever it might be? Do we need to standardise the raw materials?

Gaynor Tennant

Absolutely. We need to start thinking about “How do those components work together?” What are the interfaces?”

We need to think around tolerances a lot as well. I think that’s a big missing piece. At the moment we get plasterboard, for example, and we cut it down to the right size and then we throw what’s left in a skip, and it’s not used.

We need to start thinking about how do we bring that into the factory just in time as a kit that can be assembled into different levels of assembly, because I don’t think there’s never going to be one size that fits all and it’s going to be different. So you’re going to need a lot of different components that all can work together as a kit of parts in multiple different assemblies.

We do need to see that growth in the market desperately. I think the supply chain has an awful lot of work to do to get there. And the understanding, for me, it’s all about education and raising awareness at the moment, because I think everywhere you look, there’s people who can’t grasp that concept of just trying to make things more efficient and click together.

Like Lego, isn’t it? You have standardised pieces that go together in the right place.

What Is The Current State Of The Modular Construction Industry?

Ciaran Brennan

Where do you feel we’re at? And there’s obviously a bit to be done. What would your take be on the current state of the modular construction industry?

Gaynor Tennant

I think it’s moving on a lot. I think the factories are developing themselves, I think the government supports are there, but I think there’s so much to be done because we’ve got construction that’s fundamentally broken for me, and we’ve got manufacturing that works, and construction has all these other related problems, like planning contracts, procurement, that you don’t generally see as much in manufacturing.

So I think there’s a lot of pieces to fix, so I think we will move on.

It was funny, I was talking to Keith Waller from the Construction Innovation Hub the other week, and I said, Keith, “How long is it going to take to transform the industry?”

He said, “Ten years.” And I said, “Oh, I think it’s going to take 100 years, Keith.”

So I don’t know how long it’ll take, but I think it’s about behavioural and cultural shift and it’s about changing those mindsets of people, and often it’s just simplifying it for them and breaking that down, I think, and just making it little chunks at a time, but across a lot of things.

What Needs To Happen To Drive Adoption Of Modular Construction?

Ciaran Brennan

You mentioned that a couple of times, the education piece. So is that the answer? What do you think needs to be done to make it so that if I’m a developer, I’m looking at developing maybe a small plot of land, maybe it’s 10-20 homes, whatever it might be. And traditionally, I’m never going to think about modular as an option for that. What do we need to do to get our developers to get our builders to be looking at modular as a preferred method of construction?

Gaynor Tennant

I think it’s about breaking it down for them. And you’ve got to start at the why. So why are you trying to shift what you’re doing now to where you need to be? And I think we’re very fortunate that we’ve got, well, unfortunate at the same time that we’ve got lots of crises in the sector.

So the skills crisis, the productivity crisis, the sustainability and climate change crisis, we’ve got all these tipping points at the moment and they’re the tipping points that will ultimately shift us because we’ll have to change. There’s no way we can carry on doing what we’re doing.

So it’s about the “Why”. And you have to start with asking yourself, right, well, I’m struggling for labour on here, so what I might try and do is simplify the number of components in my building in order to make that assembly a bit more efficient. So it might not necessarily be modular that you’re going to go to, it might be that you’re going to put bathroom pods in your development or you’re going to look at facade systems in a different way rather than bricks. There’s lots and lots of different ways to make that change, but it’s about starting with the why.

It’s about getting that MMC Consultant appointed from the early days. If you’re going to go down the offsite route, start at stage zero, it can’t come soon enough, because they will know how to optimise that system. They will know where the benefits are. And I think it’s really important that ‘why’ question. We need to look at what is value, why are you doing what you’re doing and what value do you want to drive from this particular site? And that’s really overlooked.

We’re in a race to the bottom in costs and nobody’s thinking about the bigger picture here and what we can give back.

What’s Next For The Offsite Alliance?

Ciaran Brennan

What’s next then? What’s next for Offsite Alliance? What’s next for you? What does the next sort of 12-18 months look like for you guys?

Gaynor Tennant

I kind of get through each day as it comes at the moment. We’re incredibly busy. We have seven, eight strategic work streams that all our members come together in. And they all work to deliver outcomes. So we have probably about four or five outcomes that we’ll hit this year, all about transforming the sector.

So there’s lots of different things in there, from building a network of colleges with industry so we can train students in the skills. The skills include writing a book called The Four Little Pigs – you might have heard of the prequel. The fourth little pig delivers a digitally designed volumetric house. And the wolf can’t blow it down, so he has to go and get a job in a factory.

For primary school, we’ve got shoebox challenges, we’ve got digital design challenges to do alongside that. In technical solutions, I’d like to see the fire matrix complete by the end of the year. It will always be an evolving beast, but just to see what data is out there, how can we help the sector with that?

And how can we help BRE do further testing? I think the design piece, we’re doing a bit of work at the moment around a guide for categories one, two and five.

So it’s everything you’d need to know. It sits alongside the Affordable Homes Programme, 36,000 homes to build there before 2026, using off site. And that’s panelised or volumetric. So really helping RRPs out there really get building and get building true value in what they’re delivering.

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