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Durkan runs the rule over modular building

MODERN METHODS - Modern methods of construction are all very well, Durkan's Stuar t Cooksley (right) tells Steve Menary, but they need to evolve further to be truly cost-effective

STUART COOKSLEY, the chief buyer at Durkan, buys materials not just for the social housing work that makes up the bulk of the contractor's workload but for an increasing amount of private housing.

Most of Durkan's schemes feature a mix of housing. Annadale Park in Greenwich, southeast London, for instance, is typical ? a £30 million scheme being built with Family Housing and Asra, with 95 private homes, 22 shared ownership f lats and 19 for a housing association.

On these schemes, Durkan buys what Mr Cooksley describes as the 'bread and butter' materials, such as timber, blocks, bricks and kitchen and bathroom products, while subcontractors buy the products they are going to install, such as tiles.

With an increasing amount of social housing work using modern methods of construction due to demands from the Housing Corporation, which funds housing associations, contractors like Durkan need to embrace concepts such as modular bathrooms and kitchens. The Housing Corporation asks that 30 per cent of its grant is spent on schemes that include some form of modern methods of const ruct ion but, for Mr Cooksley, this is where more research is needed.

He says: 'The preconception is that you can just ship them onto a site and unpack them. We have used modular bathrooms and they benefit certain schemes like flats, but others are just not cost-effective.

'It's a good idea but still needs some more work on the cost implications of getting it on site. They need to look at how methods of fabrication can benefit the plumber, for example. At the moment, it's more cost-efficient for us to buy the materials and get subcontractors on site to install them.' The Housing Corporation aims to increase the proportion of schemes incorporating modern methods of construction to 45 per cent but the methods still need more time to evolve successfully, according to Mr Cooksley. In his experience, after pods are brought to site, a more expensive breed of handling equipment is needed to lift them into position. And breakages are almost inevitable, given their contents.

'They move around as they are brought down and then again when they are put into place and things get broken, ' says Mr Cooksley. 'Realistically, there needs to be another good year before the full target of 45 percent is achievable.' Time is not only needed for the technology to be ready but also to make it possible to meet the demands of housing associations and their architects.

Durkan employs an in-house design co-ordinator and quantity surveyor for each project but too often the available time and budget do not stack up.

'It's the time we're given to work to their criteria, ' says Mr Cooksley. 'Sometimes the architects are against the cost and time procedure. It's about persuading the client and its architect that it is not practical to meet their programmes and budgets.' On Durkan's schemes, the outer fabric of each home, whether private or social, is the same, but the firm has to provide higher-specification products inside due to pressure from its own sales team.

'The quality of the sanitaryware, tiling and floors on the private ones is bet ter, ' says Mr Cooksley. 'The people selling these houses want higher-quality stuff.' Mr Cooksley buys mainly from three builders' merchants? Travis Perkins, Buildbase and Hendricks Lovell? and tries to offer his clients the time he himself feels deprived of by setting his stall out early. By doing th is, he feels able to pass on price increases in products that may occur in the year.

Every January, Mr Cooksley sits down and reviews the buying for all his 'bread and butter' products and tries to set prices for the next 12 months. This is not always possible, due to global issues such as the increase in steel prices, but with enough time he knows that he can persuade his clients to accept this.

He says: 'Our clients read the trade press and are aware of these problems and are happy to consider an increase if we tell them in advance.'