Are Modular Homes the Future?

Some say they are the answer to the housing crisis. Others beg to differ. Just do not call them pre-fabs…

When the ground breaking series Grand Designs hit our TV screens, it gave everyone a new perspective and aspirations on what homes could be. Among the programme’s case studies, showcasing different people with different ideas and on different budgets, one approach proved surprisingly popular – the HUF House.

As with many self-build schemes, it enabled standard house designs to be tailored to individual wishes and plot constraints. But what was new here for many of us was that the house was then built in modules in Germany before being transported and assembled on-site in Britain.

Refreshed and returned

What we were seeing with this was the return of an old idea. Upmarket and stylish, it was a world away from (whisper the word) pre-fabs, with their post-war reputation of cheap materials and poor construction. This was new. This was different. This was better.

But this was also expensive. It wasn’t for everyone. Which is why the recent resurgence of the pre-fabricated concept is so interesting.

We do not call them pre-fabs now. We call them modular homes. Like the post-war building programme, they aim to provide affordable housing in volume; like HUF Houses, they aim for high levels of quality and energy-efficiency.

Modular momentum

The pace is gathering. In the last few months we have seen:

  • Legal & General’s entry to the market. The insurer has even set up its own offshoot, Legal & General Modular Homes. “The UK has an annual output of 132,000 homes with a requirement for 250,000 or more,” the company says. “Not enough houses are being built and there aren’t enough skilled people available to build cost-effectively... We are aiming to build thousands of modular houses to tackle both of these issues.” The houses are made of cross-laminated timber and are said to be highly energy-efficient.
  • Berkeley Group make a move. Berkeley are developing apartments created as separate 'pods' off-site, and assembled on site. The company says its construction methods are designed to save valuable resources, increase energy efficiency and significantly reduce waste. It’s said materials are responsibly sourced, and 75% of the steel used has been previously recycled.
  • A positive report from the London Assembly. In “Designed, sealed, delivered: The contribution of offsite manufactured homes to solving London's housing crisis”, published at the end of August, the Assembly’s Planning Committee called on the capital’s mayor to create a standard design code for OSM (offsite manufacturing), “designating public land, resources and planning powers to incentivise the sector.” Nicky Gavron, Chair of the Committee, is enthusiastic not just about the style and size homes can be, but about how clean and simple they are to make: in inner-city areas, building them causes very little disruption, she says.

In summary, advocates of modular housing say they are quick and economical to build, that they are environmentally sound, and that they can be produced in volume to tackle what everyone acknowledges is the country’s acute housing shortage.

Houses for sale also only represent part of the market: developers building homes for rent find rapid construction attractive, because it means they can start making money earlier – and also, we may yet find modular housing has a future in the public sector.

If modular housing has a future, there will need to be quality assurance processes both on-site and off-site; materials and labour will probably need to be as locally sourced as possible; environmental standards will need to set and sustained; and perhaps most importantly of all, there will need to be demonstrable proof that it’s efficiently and economically meeting a market need.

If it can tick all these boxes, who knows? Modular housing will no longer be a luxurious wonder worthy of Grand Designs

 

By LABC Warranty