A quick, cheap fix for housing?


Since Rockfire looked at potential Build to Rent and brownfield solutions to the UK housing shortage, the Government has announced that it sees modular, factory-built houses as an important element in the plan to meet annual new build targets.[1]

Factories continue operating, come rain, come shine with many house ‘kits’ assembled on site in as little as two days and one Chinese construction firm hitting the headlines last year for raising a 57 storey skyscraper in under three weeks.[2]

Minimal opportunities for delays caused by inclement weather are partly responsible for the speed that makes this alternative so attractive in a country with a housing shortage. That same speed also brings down the unit costs and, if enough houses are required, production should also enjoy economies of scale that can be passed on to home buyers.

So it is something of a surprise that the Government has not been more ambitious with its targets. Gavin Barwell, the new housing minister, has talked about building 100,000 modular houses over this parliament which could mean as few as 25,000 or 30,000 per year when the House of Lords’ Select Committee report, ‘Building More Homes’ suggests that ten times that amount are required.[3]

Why so modest a target?
Technological advances have allayed any previous worries about quality. Pre-fabricated houses are popular in the USA and range from the basic build-your-own variety for first time buyers to the positively luxurious Colonial-style clapboard mansion. Contrary to popular opinion, they are as solid as houses that are built on-site, being anchored to their location by an immovable frame. They can be further specified to withstand winds of up to 175 mph which is quite important if you live on the hurricane-prone East Coast. And if that were not enough, they are constantly improving as advances in energy efficiency can be incorporated into the design at the touch of a few buttons on the CAD system.

Do our politicians fear that we might not like our houses to be factory-built?
This certainly seemed to be a suspicion when the FT ran an article on them a decade ago.[4] But that was before the recession and, to an extent, before the cultural attitude shift, that began with IKEA furniture, gravitated towards the cleaner, greener, leaner living style that has long been popular in Scandinavia and Continental Europe and is gaining a hold in the UK today.

For so long, Britons who did not inherit their own ancestral pile would aspire to a Georgian gem or quaint country cottage. Nowadays they ask themselves why they would want to spend money on leaking roofs, exorbitant heating bills and inheritance tax. In Spain, the term for a house built in 1650 and a house built 1960 is the same: second hand. It could just be that the British are coming around to the Continental European view just as they leave Europe. Perhaps the Government should aim a little higher on its off-site construction targets.

[1] The Telegraph. Britain set for new wave of prefabs to help tackle housing crisis. 29 October 2016.
[2] The Guardian. Chinese construction firm erects 57-storey skyscraper in 19 days. 30 April 2015.
[3] The Telegraph. England needs to build 50pc more new homes. 15 July 2016.
[4] Financial Times. Prefabs – here’s one they made earlier. 4 March 2006.