Prefabricated or modular homes are increasingly viewed as one answer to London’s acute housing shortage. Outer boroughs are seen as offering the best chance of delivering factory-made homes in large numbers.
The Government’s new Housing Implementation Taskforce met last week for the first time, chaired by PM Theresa May, enthroning housing as the top public policy issue after Brexit. So what’s happening in the capital?
After the Second World War, Britain built more than 600,000 temporary prefabs in 10 years using spare factory space, and in the Sixties prefabs were used to temporarily swell supply. The UK built 425,000 homes in 1968, in part thanks to prefabs.
Today, London is widely thought to require 60,000 new homes a year, while Mayor Sadiq Khan has set a target of 50,000 and the target for the whole country, including London, is 300,000 homes a year by 2025.
In London’s outer zones, where low densities and lower values prevail, developers are gearing up to achieve the numbers required using their own or other producers’ modular systems.
Advanced technology means factory-built homes are far more attractive than post-war prefabs.
They are better quality and can be built quickly and with less waste than with traditional building methods. But they are not yet competitive on price and financing schemes can be problematic.
Developers, housing associations and major companies and manufacturers, including Legal & General, Berkeley Homes and Swan Housing Association, are seeing enough interest to justify investment in building modular home factories.
But developer First Base, founded 15 years ago to deliver affordable homes using “modern methods of construction”, has found it hard going.
“We remain big fans,” says operations director Phil Wade. “But it remains tough to raise finance to build modular schemes. We have to put more money in upfront to fully design and order the homes. That means extra risk. And we’ve not seen any system yet that is substantially cheaper than traditional methods.
“But the big benefit is reduced build times. We get revenue through sales or rent sooner. One of the other big benefits is that OSM [off-site manufactured homes] will attract a new generation of skilled workers. We need those tech-savvy youngsters.”
TIMBER’S TIME IS NOW
Professor Alex de Rijke, co-founder of architects dRMM, champions timber for sustainability but says the process is slower at present.
The firm pioneered the use of cross-laminated timber panels — CLT — including at Trafalgar Place, a block of 235 apartments at Elephant & Castle, shortlisted for the 2017 RIBA Stirling Prize.
THE PROS AND CONS OF MODULAR BUILDING
Today’s modular homes improve considerably on old prefabs with:
+ Long-lasting galvanised steel frames
+ Sound and energy insulation
+ Low energy consumption
+ All services and finishes including kitchens, bathrooms, storage, lighting and cabling for power and wireless are part of the package
+ Ready to live in once “plugged in”
– Once they’re ordered, there’s less ability to change the design
– Just as expensive as a traditional new-build house
This used a timber structure but is clad in brick to meet planning requirements.
The firm has developed the idea of creating timber “shell and core” modular homes that allow the occupier to fit them out to their own taste, cutting the initial cost of the home, something more common in London’s office market.
They designed a custom-built private home for artist Richard Woods and his family in east London.
While not “affordable” for most, the spectacular home demonstrates some of the principles of modular homes.
“We need a different economic model that targets what people can afford,” says De Rijke.
“But our process is slow to deliver, from planning to traditional build methods, which raises costs. We relied on EU immigrant workers but they are now leaving because of Brexit. Build costs are rising — off-site manufacture has some answers.
“We need to build more densely to make better cities. Why would you go for the green belt when so much of the city remains underdeveloped? Inner-city mixed-use development works for everybody. We’re designing a timber mixed-use prototype that can create homes over workplaces.”
Andrew Waugh of Waugh Thistleton Architects says modular timber construction’s time “has definitely arrived. Seventy per cent of us will be living in cities by 2035 so we need to focus on mid-rise and higher density.
“We welcome the ambition of an organisation like Legal & General, which has spent several hundred million pounds on a new CLT facility in Yorkshire.
“We’re working with Swan Housing Association who have a new CLT factory in Essex. Timber panels can be cut down to any size. You can have variation for houses, flats and high rise. You can create homes that reduce carbon rather than create it.”
The practice’s Dalston Lane scheme for Regal Homes provides 121 homes. Its superstructure, above a concrete ground and basement, is from timber panels and weighs a fifth of a similar-size concrete building.
This cut deliveries during construction by 80 per cent. It also meant the scheme could be taller and provide more homes and workspace.
Waugh says: “For planning reasons we had to clad it in brick, and support 1,500 tons of brick that took over a year to lay.
“Of course we shouldn’t throw the look of local vernacular architecture away, but we don’t need to do it in brick. We should be moving to lighter cladding materials.”
Global interest in the environmental benefits of timber buildings is such that other designers, such as PLP Architecture and Cambridge University’s centre for natural materials are looking at timber skyscrapers. The US, Europe and Asia are looking at timber as a way forward.
THE LIGHT STEEL PANEL SYSTEM
At Gallions Reach, on Greater London Authority-owned land in the Royal Docks, Ilke Homes, one of the UK’s newest modular home manufacturers, has installed two show homes built using a light steel-based panel system.
“Our homes are built in our North Yorkshire factory and transported on a lorry,” says Ilke chief executive Bjorn Conway.
“The whole house is ready for occupation within six days, with everything installed and decorated. We just have to connect them up.
“They match traditional build costs. They are zero carbon. Our business target is to produce 2,000 homes a year. The real demand is from housing associations and lots of outer London boroughs are interested.
“We’re also looking at roof boxes if the Mayor’s proposal to add two storeys becomes reality. They are approved by the Council of Mortgage Lenders. We are developing 18 house types.”
Ilke expects to sell completed homes to developers rather than individuals, costing £160-£270 per square foot to build, depending on specification.
A 1,200sq ft three-bedroom house would cost the developer buying it about £192,000. It would then be sold or rented at local market value.
‘OUR PREFAB TIMBER HOME IS SO WARM AND NATURAL’
Richard Woods is known globally for his painted woodgrain graphics on furniture and textiles.
London practice dRMM used the pattern to inject the artist’s character into the architectural design of WoodBlock House, his Hackney home and studio built entirely in wood and glass using a cross-laminated timber structural system.
Father-of-three Woods works on the ground floor and lives with his family on the top two floors.
“I met Alex de Rijke [of dRMM] because we were both interested in wood. I’d seen his Naked House ideas for timber homes on YouTube.
“Our house is amazing. It’s brilliant being able to combine living and working and the kids love it. We spent around £450,000 on the site and £600,000 on the house.
“The kids have fairly small bedrooms at the top, but a large landing which they use as a shared space — that was a great idea of Alex’s. The bedrooms are quite small to maximise the rest of the living space.
“We’ve had loads of interested people knocking on the door. It’s a great advert for my work. Alex persuaded me to put more of my work in it.
“Living with the exposed timber is lovely. It’s warm, natural, and we have a lot of outdoor space.”
YOU DON’T NOTICE IT’S A MODULAR HOUSE
Charles Davies bought his modular Urban House in Kidbrooke Village, Greenwich on Brexit Day in June 2016. The houses now cost £915,000.
“I’m sharing with my brother Billy,” says Charles. “We are living in part of London, yet it doesn’t feel like it. It’s an incredibly spacious, well-designed home, with loads of storage for a family and space for bikes outside.
“You don’t notice it’s a modular house. We’ve a spacious ground-floor kitchen and dining area, two first-floor bedrooms and a living room and two more bedrooms on the top floor.”