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INSIGHTS FUTURE WATCH Offsite for sore eyes


Often seen as the panacea for the housing crisis, is offsite construction methodology able to live up to its potential in terms of design quality as well as volume? Teo Lyubomirova spoke to four architects to hear their views


I


magine being able to create good quality homes in large volumes and at a pace previously unseen. A utopian concept or a dream solution to the UK’s spiralling housing crisis? The Government is hoping for the latter as it promises to inject cash into schemes delivered by or incorporating ‘modern methods of construction’ (MMC), or modular offsite construction, as this burgeoning industry more commonly termed today. However, although it has an attractive set of characteristics including speed of delivery, reduced on site hassle and greatly improved quality control, modular construction is still trying to shed its bad reputation of cheap ‘prefabs’ and poorly-designed high density estates built in the post-war period. This is partly why today industry experts, entrepreneurs and lenders baulk at saying the word ‘prefabs’ and prefer the tag ‘offsite’.


Scratching the surface of standardisation


Factory construction and, increasingly, automation is at the heart of the offsite construction process, whether it is volumetric modules pre-fitted with beds, sinks or toilets, assembled and ready to trans- ported and lifted into position, or panel systems prepared for on-site assembly.


According to Stuart Carr of Inglis & Carr, the main driver for success in this industry is expansion of the market and achieving


higher levels of automation. “We have to industrialise and standardise and creativity could flow from that,” he says. “If you set the performance specifications and the design parameters, then you can invite creativity.”


Pellings’ Nicolas Maari shares this view: “There aren’t industry standard module sizes,” he says. When it comes to potential routes to mainstreaming offsite, he says: “Working closer with manufac- turers to create standard protocols for modular is one way – and it’s starting to happen”. However, Carr admits the billions required for a mass-scale expansion “just aren’t there” yet. “If we were to try and industri- alise in the same way the automotive industry has done, then we are biting off more than we can chew.” He adds: “We need to know who the end user is,” highlighting the industry’s reliance on contin- ual orders to justify keeping factories running. The Government’s £3bn Home Building Fund is intended to encourage firms to enter the MMC sector. Carr suggests it’s “basically a cushion” made to protect businesses entering the market. “We are really scratching the surface,” he says. “If you think about the cost of building 100,000 homes (the current supply shortfall), then £3bn wouldn’t suffice, so this is really low scale funding considering the scale of the housing crisis.”


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ABOVE AND FOLLOWING PAGE The Apex House student accommodation development near Wembley stadium designed by HTA Design is Europe’s largest modular offsite-constructed tower


ADF MAY 2017


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