THE BLOG

Time To Go Modular

16/01/2017 17:45

The UK is in the midst of a housing crisis. There are 1.5 million 20 to 39-year-olds working in London, and only about 12.5 per cent of them can access homeownership. Somewhat predictably but nevertheless worrying, the GL Hearn 2016 planning survey reported that just 14% of LPAs in England are confident in the government's ability to accelerate the delivery of affordable housing. The government has a pledge to build 1 million new homes by the end of the decade, but housing completions are currently well short of achieving this goal. In London, for example, something in the order of 50, 000 homes need to be built a year; at present, it is only about 25, 000 a year.

Of these 1 million, the government has announced that 100, 000 or 10% are planned to be prefabricated or 'modular': homes built off site in factories. At the moment in the UK, only 5% of permanent housing has any significant prefabrication, and fully modular homes make up just 1% of the housing supply. This is perhaps unusual given that 'prefabs' are actually the norm in continental Europe.

The advantages of modular house building are many. Modular houses are said to be more energy-efficient to run; they can be constructed on site extremely quickly, reducing disturbances for neighbours; and more efficient construction also reduces costs for developers, meaning that the homes can be produced more cheaply, as it does away with much of the subcontracting that can often frustrate timely construction. This is particularly pertinent given that construction skills are threatened, particularly post-Brexit (it has been estimated that almost half of construction workers in London, for example, are foreign born.)

This cheapness is obviously a real advantage given the number of people currently struggling with high rents and house prices. In this sense modular home building has the potential to really alleviate the housing crisis. It could help with the provision of social housing, too (although of course the political will must also be there.) Lewisham Council have recently built modular homes for homeless families. Not only is this obviously preferable to putting families in often unsuitable B&Bs, but the Council have said that it was actually cheaper over the long run than paying these same families' housing benefit. Costs should fall further as the industry grows and scales up.

For a lot of people, the word 'modular' conjures up a negative image of the post-war prefabs, the 'temporary' 'flat pack' housing built in droves after WWII as temporary housing. It is worth mentioning though that, according to the writer Elisabeth Blanchett, actually many of the residents of post-war prefabs loved their homes as they were seen as incredibly modern at the time, so this negative reputation is perhaps undeserved. At any rate, prefabricated is definitely no longer a byword for low quality. As The Times put it, 'prefabs have officially gone posh' - the homes that have been built off site are often higher quality, more luxurious and more sustainable than homes built in the traditional way.

Land availability has been ranked as one of the top barriers to house building. Available land is of course expensive, particularly in cities such as London, where a lot of developable land is brownfield. This drives up production costs, meaning that modular homes might still be unaffordable for many. Clearly, single-storey prefabs with individual back gardens, of the kind built after the war, will make no financial sense in the 21st century. But technological advances mean that we can now have modular towers, such as 461 Dean in New York which is 32 storeys high, and this makes much better use of the land. And the government recently announced that there is to be better funding and a push to release more land for prefab and self-build homes, which is another reason to be optimistic.

To sum up, I think that modular homes should become integrated into new mainstream housing. They are a viable solution to alleviate, if not solve, the current housing crisis. I also think that councils, particularly in areas such as Westminster where I grew up, need to be building more social housing so that all types of people can go on living there: whatever doubts people have about modular housing, given the low availability of (urban) land in this country and the difficulties this poses for building cheaply and quickly, it is a solution that should not be overlooked. I look forward to reading the government's Housing White Paper, due any day now...

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