Making modular the new normal – is it the future?

27 July 2020 | Investment

Modular housing is growing in popularity, with many viewing it as one fast, eco-friendly way of solving the housing crisis. An increasing amount of investment is ploughing into this sector, with Network Rail recently committing to a partnership with modular housing provider ilke Homes and a number of schemes in play from Cambridge and Liverpool to Gloucesteshire.

Here, Rich Hyams, director at astudio – a research-based architectural practice, with offices in London and Lisbon – outlines why modular homes should be the future of housing in the UK.

With hotels, B&Bs and many homeless shelters forced to close due to Covid-19, shielding from the deadly virus has proved particularly challenging for those without permanent accommodation. Despite government measures, only 14,500 of the UK’s 320,000 homeless population have been placed in temporary accommodation. 

The government has recently allocated an extra £105 million to provide temporary support to rough sleepers through the pandemic. This money will go towards extending contracts with hotels or reaching new agreements with other providers, such as universities and hostels, and supporting the 305,000 people who are still without safe accommodation – at least 120,000 of which are children. 

However, this crisis has unearthed the urgent need for a long-term solution. At astudio, we believe the answer lies in a fundamental change to the UK’s housing strategy.

We need homes, and fast

An estimated 345,000 new builds are required each year to address homelessness and the lack of affordable housing. Yet, the UK is failing to deliver the homes it needs, with just 174,000 homes built between June 2018 to June 2019.

With Covid-19 compounding this problem, the government and property developers must urgently review their strategies in order to deliver housing stock faster.

Modular construction, where sections of a building are manufactured in a controlled environment, offers a solution that would allow for the delivery of vital housing stock sustainably, safely, efficiently and, most importantly, at speed. Assisted by advancing technologies, off-site construction can deliver new homes in as little as three days. 

Our Sugden Way project, which will provide 13 affordable homes in East London upon completion later this year, uses volumetric modular off-site construction, where large building elements are manufactured off-site that can be linked together to form a complete building.

Using this process, we can reduce time to completion by up to 50%, and rapidly deliver the houses we vitally need to address the UK’s housing problems.

Modular would stretch homelessness budgets further

The government’s Budget for 2020 includes £236 million to rehome 6,000 rough sleepers. With homelessness figures increasing by thousands each year, this is, of course, a necessary expense. Yet, by considering alternative construction methods, homelessness budgets could be stretched further.

Modular construction’s reduced programme can significantly reduce project cost. With less time and less people needed, modular can deliver a three-bedroom home for as little as £65,000 per unit. By scaling up or downsizes according to an area’s needs, we could address homelessness with affordable permanent structures, rather than costly temporary accommodation.

Largely due to Britain’s infamous post-war prefabricated homes, which were notoriously poor quality and often unsightly, there has been a reluctance to adopt modular construction methods. Advancements of digital tools such as parametric modelling and virtual reality has assisted design and off-site manufacturing techniques, providing a level of quality assurance that wasn’t previously possible.

Modular homes offer a sustainable solution

There is an urgent need to address homelessness, even more so amid the global pandemic. However, any solution cannot fail to consider needs beyond cost and speed of delivery. Poorly designed and constructed homes would only create new problems in place of the ones that they solve. 

Building for sustainability and environmental performance will be key to protecting the health of residents and ensuring that affordable housing remains affordable. Almost 80% of the people now consider a building’s environmental performance when choosing a new home , and modular housing can help to meet these new needs and ensure that new builds are fit for purpose in the long-term.

Modular construction methods, such as astudio’s amodular, typically see buildings tested in a controlled factory setting, which in turn reduces energy waste during the build process and improves the energy efficiency of the home. Additionally, this method favours materials which creates a healthier environment for its inhabitants.

Modular: solving the UK’s housing problems

Modular has already proved incredibly valuable during the pandemic. The Nightingale Hospital, built in just nine days at London’s ExCel exhibition centre, is a testament to the efficiency of modular construction.

It will undoubtedly continue to solve problems during and after the pandemic – in October, astudio’s Desborough Road project will reach its conclusion, providing 70 new units for rough sleepers. With the right approach from the government and the construction industry, projects like this can help to deliver the homes we so desperately need.

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–> This post has originally been featured in Property Investor Today.