Housing Innovation

For the past few years that I have attended breakfast talks, evening PechaKuchas, conferences, exhibitions and walks as part of the programme at the NLA, the housing crisis facing London is never far from the agenda. The number of units required each year is the headline in the Evening Standard but what do these numbers look like on the ground.

Obviously the lack of affordable and social accommodation is a massive issue, but there is also a shortage of family sized dwellings and how do we deal with (re)emerging tenures like co-housing, accommodation aimed specifically at the rental market and sheltered housing. These are all important in having a community for London that is inclusive & diverse. What are the ways in which this can be achieved quickly and with quality, not just in the quality of the building itself but for the development to contribute positively to the urban realm and promote communities? Thursday’s conference was a chance to look at modern methods of construction and the ability to help meet the housing provision required in London.

There are multiple barriers to overcome if we are to deliver the quantum of housing required and we may have inadvertently made this significantly harder.

March 29th will always be a relatively divisive date in the history of the UK – the day when Theresa May signed the letter that triggered Article 50. Whether for or against the move away from the European Union, it’s clear the ramifications of the decision will have a large impact across every industry and the construction industry is far from immune from the effects. March 30th may not resonate in quite the same way but for the 200 or so delegates in the basement of The Building Centre on Store Street, representatives from all parts of the construction industry were coming together to explore new ways to deliver housing in an uncertain future.

The conference entitled Housing Innovation: New methods of construction and delivery was a cover for talking about that dirty word, ‘PREFAB’. Very few terms conjure such disdain in the public’s imaginations. The failures of prefabrication in the post war era through to the early 1970s have served to almost completely wipe out this method of construction in the UK, however this has not deterred our cousins on the continent from successfully implementing prefabrication methods. There are many benefits to prefabrication and the expediency of delivery on site may help alleviate some of the major issues facing the construction industry.

At this time when we are trying to build vast numbers of new dwellings, Mark Farmer, author of The Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model, presented some stark figures relating to the construction workforce. The workforce relies heavily on migrant labour and skills. 45% of the workforce is made up migrant labour and two thirds of those are from the EU. The EU workforce accounts for over 25% of the profession and anecdotal evidence is suggesting that due to uncertainty over whether or not these EU citizens have the right to stay in the UK they are already leaving to return home or to other EU countries. The workforce is aging and the young labour is not that of UK nationals but migrant labour and statistics suggest that UK school leavers do not see the construction industry as a desirable career. Without EU labour propping up the aging workforce, what are the solutions? Mark’s view is we need to embrace new technologies, we need to modernise the industry, there needs to be less reliance on traditional trades and using new technologies will increase output and quality and fill the skill gap. This could turn our dated construction industry into something high-tech and forward thinking, something we could all be proud of.

One of these new technologies is modular construction. Modular construction falls under two main categories: volumetric and flatpack. The former is the delivery of a fully integrated building components whether this is an entire flat, bathroom pod or kitchen. For the latter think IKEA for buildings. The progress of rapid prototyping, 3D printing, CNC machining and other automated methods of production over the last few years has been truly astounding and other design disciplines have been quick to utilise these technologies to improve their outputs.

In addition to the problems facing the construction workforce there a multiple influences preventing new technologies, particularly prefabrication methods, from emerging. Firstly there are very few examples of completed projects in the UK. Clients don’t have any benchmarking for these schemes and there is little information for QSs to work with so generally 10% is added to the cost, often without justification, leaving clients with little appetite for working with these methods of construction. Secondly due to the economies of scale involved, those that produce the prefabricated units generally need large guaranteed orders which they can fulfil. Warranty providers such as NHBC are particularly averse to risk, that is their prerogative, but there is a lot evidence that these methods of construction improve quality and warranty providers need to change their attitudes towards progressive technologies. Financial institutions are nervous about new technologies so often require clients to put a higher percentage of capital up front to lower their risk. This often prevents small and medium enterprises from getting into what could be a very lucrative market. There can also be issues for purchasers of completed dwellings to get mortgages. Prefabrication isn’t generally suited to making the most out of smaller sites. Planning authorities are unused to these kind of schemes and a level of education is required to improve the planning process for prefabricated developments to move quickly through the planning process. Not a small mountain to overcome, but there is desire from the Mayor, the GLA and the Government to encourage new technologies, particularly if they increase output.

Councils such as Lewisham and Hackney are embracing prefabrication schemes. Emma Talbot of Lewisham Council explained how ‘pop-up’ housing in Ladywell was a first step in trying to take council tenants out of expensive B&B accommodation into prefabricated housing. Emma was gracious enough to acknowledge that the council’s limited understanding of prefabrication meant that initially they were sceptical of this kind of project but they took it upon themselves to visit a prefabrication factory to better understand the product and assist with the decision making. Hackney could soon become a world leader in prefabrication with over 20 cross laminated timber (CLT) projects going up in the borough in recent years and this is due to the council taking a pragmatic look at the issue of housing in the borough and being forward thinking about getting these projects approved. They do have issues though as a recent project being tendered by the council, which was designed to be prefab timber, returned 5 tender proposals using a concrete frame. It is clear that there are many obstacles to procuring this kind of project but the drive is there.

We were treated to some fantastic work from the dRMM & Waugh Thistleton Architects (WTA) at the conference. David Lomax of WTA presented some impressive schemes in Hackney that utilise CLT, showing off the versatility of using prefabrication in the construction industry. Their project at Dalston Lane is the world’s largest CLT building and demonstrates their ambition to roll out the use of timber construction in high-density urban housing, across London and beyond. The ten-storey, 121-unit development is made entirely of CLT, from the external, party and core walls, through to the floors and stairs, weighing a fifth of a concrete building of this size, and reducing the number of deliveries during construction by 80%. Not only are there environmental benefits to building in timber, effectively being carbon negative given the embodied carbon and subsequent tree re-planting, but there are additional benefits such as inherent fire retardancy reducing the need for additional linings or intumescents being required.

Sara Muzio of dRMM showed off some impressive research into timber construction and put forward not only a beautiful scheme but had worked the numbers to prove the viability of her proposals. The proposition, Wood Blocks; Housing for London, proposes that a 2-3 bedroom apartment in Zone 1 could cost as little as £300,000 with contractors just providing a shell with first fix M&E and the owner would then finish off the apartment themselves or hire a smaller contractor to do so. This allows the main contractor to move onto further projects, expediting the house building process. Obviously this isn’t for everyone but there is definitely a market for it. In fact sign me up.

The reality is the construction industry needs to modernise, but in order to do so we as lead designers and consultants need to be advising clients better on the options available and convincing contractors that there is mileage in exploring these. We work in a collaborative industry but all too often we seem to be pulling against each other. It was nice to see David and Sara on stage openly talking about future collaboration. Sharing knowledge is key in being able to drive the industry forward particularly if we want to think outside the box. We definitely left feeling that there are positive, progressive solutions to the problems facing the construction industry and the provision of housing; but equally there was a sense that everyone in the room was on the same page – how do we reach out to everyone else?

One thing more than any other stood out and it was something Alison Brooks of ABA said – Insist on beauty. Beauty in construction, beauty in space, in public realm. These innovations should not have us designing to minimums, but inspiring us to make the most out of the technology available to us.

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