The future of factory-made housing 

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Swan Housing, Pollard Thomas Edwards

What progress have the fabled Modern Methods of Construction made? And just what kind of a difference will modular and other off-site technologies make to London’s housing crisis? A special think tank, held at the offices of Pollard Thomas Edwards this week sought to find out.

One advance is in companies building factories to produce residential products. Swan Housing, said its executive director Geoff Pearce, has made some headway in this area, having committed to building a factory in Basildon that will go into full production next January. This factory will employ around 50 staff and be used to build homes in projects such as Blackwall Reach, where 220 units will be created in nine storeys, designed by CF Moller. Up until this point this area has been something of a ‘cottage industry’, but investment is being made by others, including Berkeley Homes with its 160,000 sq ft factory capable of providing 1000 homes a year, and Legal & General setting up a factory with a far bigger capacity. And then there are organisations like Swan, which Pearce described as a ‘vertically integrated part of the supply chain’ which can offer certainty. ‘By and large, the industry up to now has been characterised by companies that build boxes, but in the dry’, said Pearce, with advantages of quality control and the weather. ‘But they don’t necessarily get advantages of economies of scale and efficiencies’, principally because they build different products for different clients every time. Swan is manufacturing for itself with a flexible product that allows for as many different scenarios as possible. The first project being constructed in Swan’s factory is Beechwood West by Pollard Thomas Edwards, 250 private sale homes, with the first prototypes now being assembled on-site.

In 2014, the company began discussing the factory – a heated space of 88,000 sq ft – with a goal of building 100 homes a year over 6-7 years.  It engaged with Arup about suitable materials for the modular housing it was aiming to build, deciding on cross laminated timber, and for its Beechwood West scheme each customer can decide on its own finish, internal layouts from a range, numbers of rooms and their specification. In total, in fact, there are over a million configurations. ‘The intention is to start to address some of the big concerns people have about buying new homes, which is that they are all the same and there is a lack of space’, said Pearce.  But the big opportunity is to learn as each individual house is built, and put that back into the system, in a bid to continuously improve the product. Swan now has a pipeline of 6,500 plots and of four projects, including Watts Grove in Tower Hamlets, due to start in early spring and designed by Waugh Thistleton Architects.

Mace is also active in this area, but, said director Shaun Tate, by bringing factory processes to site. The ‘rising factory’ they have designed allowed the firm to construct an entire floor up to the point where they could commence white box construction in 38 hours from a flat floorplate to one ready for fit-out. ‘That was remarkable, and significantly quicker than we thought’, said Tate. In future, the firm will move away from transactional relationships, said Tate, to much more collaborative, design-led solutions where it can tap into existing resources, seeking to get involved in the mass componentisation solutions that are appropriate for, say, schools and prisons. ‘We want to offer an alternative approach that will still give 85% offsite componentisation, looking much more to onsite production rather than offsite construction.’

For Studio RHE director Richard Hywel Evans, customisation is not really a feature, with his firm’s nHouse idea available in three or four-bed and some elements changeable on external cladding. It is more of a standardised product, produced from a factory in Peterborough, with a capacity of 100 this year and 300 next. Rogers Stirk Harbour’s scheme in Ladywell, meanwhile, was more a case of precision manufacture and assembly that was also futureproofed thanks to its fire engineering, said RSHP associate partner Andrew Partridge. Design quality there was absolutely critical, said AECOM’s chief executive, buildings and places EMIA Peter Flint, building a product with almost an Ikea-like set of information. But challenges lie within the supply chain of this whole area, said Flint. Umpteen challenges such as finance, insurance and mortgages are thrown at the industry, but one of the key ones lies in the weakness of the supply chain. And that is pushing firms like Aecom into new territory, such as manufacture. ‘We probably have to embrace the approach and accept that we can’t go to a supplier and buy’, said Flint. 

More firms are coming into that supply chain, though, said Pocket’s head of construction Alun Macey, even if they are relatively new to the journey. Companies like Vision, Elements and Caledonian have been stalwarts in the residential market, but others, seeing how attractive it might be, are following suit, with more interest from places like Estonia and China, albeit where freight needs to be factored into costs. ‘The main challenge for us is trying to find a framework of contractors who are credible’, Macey said, but a turnkey solution is essential.

Most CLT is made in Austria and Germany or elsewhere in Continental Europe and imported in, said KLH pre-construction director Tom Holland. But perhaps, in a post-Brexit economy, places like Canada and the US will also come into play. 

Paolo Vimercati, associate principal of Grimshaw, said in the UK his practice is trying to push an alternative, researching a structural modular panelised system made from recycled materials that should be ready by the end of the year. Collaboration is key for steady advancement in this area of the construction industry, he said. ‘The current methodology of interaction between stakeholders on all sides has to change. Economic gain is a medium term target, while at this early stage everyone’s focus should be on investment and innovation if we are serious about achieving change and unlocking the full potential of these systems.’

When it comes to viability, there isn’t a developer in the land who wouldn’t want to build leaner and safer, with a better certainty of quality, said Quintain’s executive director of construction, Matt Voyce. But the industry must help developers make that choice. ‘We have real concerns about the covenant strength of the players that are out there’, Voyce said. ‘Where we want to go is to a kit of parts. That’s probably a better solution for us. Volumetric at scale is still a big challenge.’ It also needs some kind of intervention from government, added Voyce, to offer safeguards in a very fluid market. There could be a role for the GLA in this, suggested Pearce, underwriting to support manufacturing as a guarantee. 

Perhaps this is whole area is a little like nuclear fusion, said John Gray, partner, head of production information at HTA. Here was a thing that everyone knows about and should be brilliant and yet it requires such investment and a level of commitment before you get that payback from efficiencies, hence the ‘stuttering’ attempts to get it off the ground. The huge number of unknowns creates heavy margins to cater for risk.  And yet the savings in terms of carbon and transport should not be disregarded either. In order to assist the supply chain in its need for reliable pipeline by connecting it to this pent-up demand from a cohort of enlightened-but-cautious clients, HTA are developing a Modular Design Standard that will identify the key design parameters that are vital to a successful modular design. This should give developers that added confidence to commit to modular, safe in the knowledge that they still have options in their ultimate choice of manufacturer.

Certainly, at the start of residential projects there needs to be a rigorous evaluation from the right people over the most appropriate way to construct it, rather than switching half way through, said AKTII director Rob Partridge. ‘The design team play a really important role here in helping developers to make decisions early.’ David Cordery, Construction Senior Associate at law firm Trowers & Hamlins, agreed and said that many of his clients are engaging with the consultant team early to seek their input on design, but some forget the role of the contractor in offering their views on buildability and procurement.  ‘Early contractor involvement can help to value engineer the project at an early stage and might help remove some of the adversarial aspect of pricing modular solutions.’

From the GLA’s perspective, said John Bibby, its senior policy officer, housing and land, the kit of parts solution feels like the easiest way to get a greater rollout than some of the volumetric processes, which take more investment to get to scale. Some, it should be acknowledged, will remain a cottage industry. But while the GLA cannot de-risk everything or invest in factories, it would like to try to facilitate the industry ‘coalescing around the horses to back’. There’s a role the GLA can play in helping developers understand the market place, said Bibby. ‘Let’s disaggregate the problem and recognize it’s not just one big thing we have to deliver’. 

It is an exciting time for the construction industry, said Metropolitan Workshop associate Jonathan Drage. Although there is no silver bullet, wholly offsite or partial prefabrication both contribute to shortfall in supply. ‘The industry is finally addressing recommendations of Egan and Latham’, he said. But for offsite to be successful it should also be able to raise a wider design quality, worryingly, sometimes schemes appear as ‘extrusions to suit a modular design’ Drage added. 

So, what might be a catalyst for change? One could be the notion of 50% offsite by 2021, said Alan Shingler, partner at Sheppard Robson. If that type of target became mandatory in a period when we need housing numbers it could provide that ‘step change’ in the same way that we saw codes for sustainable homes bring innovative partners together from across the industry, collaborating to meet those targets. Only 5-10% of Sheppard Robson’s residential work has a realistic chance of modular applied to it. ‘So what I think is really needed is close collaboration and partnership’, said Shingler. 

We still want buildings to speak of the places they are in, though, and be more than wallpapering or decorating a modular solution, said Pollard Thomas Edwards partner Carl Vann. The advantages of a factory-made process are that if the standardised product is refined and working well, then an integrated approach to BIM and a more sophisticated factory automation can start to deliver flexibility and thence bring forward site-specific solutions and customer choice. ‘It looks like it’s a route to both of those panaceas’.

To help it on its path, the GLA could look to the GLC archives on what worked and what didn’t in terms of standardised elements, said NLA chairman Peter Murray. At Be First, said head of affordable housing Jenny Coombs, faced with the challenge of delivering big housing numbers, the authority is keen to make off site its favoured method. Standardisation could bring certainty on affordable housing, she said, and any help that the GLA could bring to help authorities through the ‘minefield’ would be appreciated.

Brexit, though, presents difficult obstacles in terms of currency devaluation making importing more expensive and also, a potential loss of skill from the workforce, said Peter Flint. Cost of labour on site could massively increase, thus affecting viability. ‘The housing requirement is not getting less and getting the macroeconomics and appraisals right is going to be key’, he said. At Swan’s factory, some of the workforce has come from manufacturing as well as construction, and many are older people. But there has been an ‘ideological shift’ in young people, said Pearce, who he claims no longer want to work on building sites. ‘There’s no aspiration.’ That skills shortage is something GLA has identified as a key priority, said Bibby, and is seen as part of the same challenge. It will consider helping people to achieve ‘easy wins’ in the sector through information, standardisation and, potentially, through grants, he added. But in the light of Grenfell there is also a degree to which we need to reassure the public that when we are introducing new technologies, ‘we are 100% confident that they are future-proofed’. 

Ultimately, though, the collaborative approach may be best, against a backdrop of politicians realising there is a problem in housing, exacerbated by Brexit. ‘The industry is too young to be able to decide what’s right for the right kind of process’, said Paulo Vimercati. ‘If everybody brings to the table what they want in a collaborative, as open-book as possible in a commercial world way, it will move along faster.’

 

David Taylor,
Editor,
New London Quarterly

NLA Think Tank, Part of the Housing Programme

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