Modular construction – can it really be the answer to the UK’s housing crisis?

Chris Patrick, partner at QS/project management firm Bruceshaw, reports on the opening night debate at the Surface Design Show, which heard from designers and others on the potential of modular construction in the housing sector.

The opening night debate of the Surface Design Show in London was highly topical for housebuilders, being titled ‘Factory- made Housing: is this the solution to building better homes long-term?’ The talk was held in association with the Royal Institute of British Architects and New London Architecture. The discussion was chaired by NLA

chairman Peter Murray, who was joined by Nigel Ostime of architects Hawkins\Brown, Hazel Rounding of architects shedkm, and Jane Richards of engineering and profes- sional services firm WSP. To begin, Murray took the audience back

to post-war Britain, when Harold Macmillan was faced with the ambitious task of build- ing hundreds of thousands of homes. Macmillan’s answer? Pre-fabricated housing. It was hugely successful in terms of meeting targets and the needs of the nation, but the style and design of the structures has become less popular as time has passed. Faced with another housing shortage now

however, could modular housing, or Modern Methods of Construction (MMC), be a large part of the solution? Could contemporary design overcome the apparent PR problems existing modular or pre-fab homes face, given their proven ability to solve build problems fast?


BREAKING BARRIERS Nigel Ostime then explained the benefits of MMC, combined with a Vertically Integrated Supply (VIS) chain, if embraced by the sector: the potential to eliminate RIBA Stage 4 and create a faster, safer, lower carbon, and less wasteful production model – and the potential to employ a more diverse workforce in the process. But there are barriers to the method. For

one, cost: opening a factory to produce pre- fabricated housing through MMC methods is no small endeavour. This would create a major barrier for developers entering the pre-fab homebuilding market, Ostime said. Another barrier is the outdated miscon-

ceptions about pre-fabricated homes being flimsy and unattractive. These need to be eliminated. “The best way to address the problems is to build them (pre-fabricated homes) and prove their efficacy,” proffered Ostime, who went on to cite developer Pocket Living as an example of how to do MMC well. Helen Rounding, from shedkm, also came out in emphatic support of MMC, highlighting the excellent design and quality that can be achieved. Rounding said that in the wake of the

last recession, the housing market needed to be challenged and disrupted, which shedkm began to do with their Town House project – demonstrating how it was a neighbourhood of homes that would rebuff some of the misconceptions around factory built houses. A last barrier may simply be rhetoric. We

always talk about rooms rather than space, when it is space that is the issue. This

habit of using a syntax that is in its nature more personal is particular to residential building of course. Jane Richards pointed out that the term pre-fab, with all its afore- mentioned connotations, is not helpful in selling the idea. Modular building systems are no longer rectangular boxes, they are much more flexible.

DEVELOPING MODULARITY Jane Richards of WSP joined the talk with a positive note, having observed a shift in thinking over the last 18 months to a more favourable attitude to offsite manufactur- ing. She said that the discussion across the industry has progressed from if to how, and the construction world knows it must now respond to the need for building modular spaces in volume. Berkeley Homes, having invested in its own factory, is predicting that 20 per cent of its pipeline will be pre- fabricated. And L&G and Laing O’Rourke are also embracing and investing in the change too. Shifting from a building to a manufactur-

ing mindset comes with another issue – it requires a steady demand for the supply. In order for this to happen, inter-governmen- tal departments need to be behind the cause to ensure the availability of land in the right locations upon which to build. And there lies the final barrier. Once

Government has recognised the vision, the industry needs to reorganise itself and deliver using Modern Methods of Construction that meet the requirements of the prevailing housing crisis, fast, and for the future.

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