Why modular should be the model

By Rosie Abrahamson

The last time modular housing was in vogue, an embattled Conservative government was haggling over our relationship with Europe while chasing an ambitious set of house building targets.

The early 1960s was the pre-fab era; when Henry Ford’s infamous vehicle manufacturing strategy was applied to housing. The result, a series of bland, anonymous and low-quality tower blocks populating the UK’s skyline with that indistinguishable terracotta tangerine. 

Unknown to many however, modular housing, also known as off-site manufactured housing, has come on leaps and bounds since then. Rather than offering the much maligned buildings of the past, it can be precision-engineered in order to create modern builds with genuine environmental credentials fit to meet the challenges of the 21st century. For example, digital design means that air-tight fixtures and strategic air gaps between modules create thermally efficient homes which are acoustically protected.

Furthermore, modular housing enables construction on hard-to-reach plots of land, which would be logistically unfeasible using traditional methods. This is because as the homes are not built on-site, there are fewer lorries and mixers. This, in turn, also minimises both the physical hazards to construction workers and the financial risks to housebuilders as it ensures a smoother and more efficient construction process.

In 2019, we find ourselves again haggling with Europe and struggling to achieve another ambitious set of housing targets. Given that modern modular housing offers a safer, cheaper, faster, more environmentally-efficient, higher-quality method for constructing housing, it is no surprise that politicians endorse it.

There is a view among many politicians that housebuilders are failing to tap in to these methods and realise their benefits. Only earlier this week, Conservative MP and former Minister for Culture & Digital Economy Ed Vaizey described housebuilders as “bizarre” and “deeply conservative”, in his criticisms of the sector for not adopting modern modular methods quickly enough.

However, politicians are wrong to suggest that housebuilders are not adopting these innovative methods. As leaders across every sector of the economy know – they must adapt or die. Big tech companies are already disrupting the housebuilding sector. For example, Amazon is investing in Plant Prefab to create smart, modular and customisable homes. Airbnb is piloting Backyard, a modular and adaptable housing project for the Build-to-Rent market.

The leaders in the housebuilding sector are no different. For example, Berkeley Homes has already created the Berkeley Modular company, which produces modular homes in Ebbsfleet in Kent. While Legal & General’s modular housing factory has the capacity to produce up to 3,000 homes per year, with little expectation that demand will slow down. Last year, Pocket Living’s Mapleton Crescent residential development in Wandsworth allowed for almost 100 pre-constructed flats to be lifted into place by crane at the rate of one storey a day. Politicians are not the only ones taking notice of the innovations; housebuilders are adapting.

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