Factory-made housing – ensuring quality

Tuesday 29 May 2018

Factory-made housing represents a major opportunity to bring about a quality revolution, even if it is not the only answer to the entire housing crisis. But it needs new players, capacity, and collaboration, and must be harnessed in a way that does not give way to systemic errors or bland homogeneity.

Those were some of the key messages from a special think tank - Factory-made housing – ensuring quality – held at the Aldgate Tower offices of AECOM last week. The move to modern methods of construction is one that is of key interest to AECOM, said its director of strategic planning Toby Uppington, particularly in the attractive opportunity it presents for the industry to ‘disrupt’ the way buildings are constructed.

Innovation, certainly, is to be welcomed in all its forms, said BLP director of technical consultancy Jeff Maxted, but the industry does have to be careful that we do not promote innovation without having technical due diligence and reality checks. ‘The last thing the industry needs is a major failure by a major offsite manufacturer’, he said. It would only take one to set the offsite industry back, which was why BOPAS was created, helping to ensure that anything produced offsite is durable for at least 60 years, or two mortgage terms.

Perhaps what is missing, though is a universal standard, suggested Friend and Company Director and Professor of Architecture UCLAN, Adrian Friend, of the kind that is prevalent in automotive or aeronautical industries. After all, the Victorians were not inhibited by standards, but built 400,000 homes every year for 70 years. We, by contrast, seem inhibited by different systems and standards and a plethora of consultants with many voices that seem to conflict.

There are of course precedents in this kind of prefabrication, said director of FORMwork, Kevin Gray, the Leadenhall and Lloyds, examples of buildings near to the discussion venue that were made almost entirely off site. But maybe the housing industry is ‘lagging’ behind in its ability to produce technologically advanced component parts, and maybe the barriers here are institutional and economic. ‘For some reason, we haven’t been able to accumulate a pool of knowledge’, said Gray. ‘Some sense of the universal approach might bring quite disparate strands together’. 

Waugh Thistleton senior associate Dave Lomax said his practice had found success mixing different kinds of approach, such as closed panel timber frame systems with CLT. ‘I suppose what I want to espouse is the idea of open-mindedness’, he said. There is plenty of room for lots of parties to innovate. This is a big market, and it is important to remember how long it took the car industry to move from panel beaters in a shed to robots in a factory – around 100 years. ‘We’ve really only been taking this super-seriously for 20, at the most’, said Lomax. So, it is not the time to close down avenues of investigation. But what you do see is that the people getting volume and built product to the world, Lomax added, are those who have directly partnered, albeit with a big procurement issue in play. ‘The way we are buying our buildings doesn’t support the way we want to manufacture them.’

ilke Homes CEO Björn Conway said his organisation is spending a ‘not inconsiderable sum’ to set up a factory and produce an ‘attractive range of houses’, in a way that, if done consistently with others, brings confidence to the market. But even producing 5,000 homes a year in this way – chosen as a five-year target to enable it to think of being a volume player – that is probably only 1% of the market, so offsite needs many more new entrants. Linda Thiel, director of the London Studio at White Arkitekter added that it was important to ensure that the ‘mindset’ is right from the beginning on offsite, and that it is about delivering a good place or housing, rather than just one system from day one.

The big game-changer in this area, though, said director, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands Alex Lifschutz, is in private rental. For the first time in this market, those entering are saying that they want these buildings to be worthy of their investment in 10 years’ time. So they have to look good and perform well – how will buildings adapt? ‘You have got to think about the long-term’, said Lifschutz, rather than the ‘knee-jerk rush’ that happened in the 1970s. ‘We have got to learn, and not go through the same pain a second time.’

Getting a modular mindset from the beginning at masterplanning is certainly critical, said Uppington, but one of the biggest incentives is surely cost, suggested Friend. Factory-made is half the price of a traditional house, but one of the big markers the industry can do more to promote is the uptick in quality, amid what Bjorn called a process of ‘deconstructing construction’. 

Lendlease sees off-site construction as a big opportunity, 55-months is the current ‘traditional’ build period and they hope to save up to half of this using DfMA and increased off-site delivery, said its residential design and technical director Russ Edwards, and offsite allows for the ability to provide a huge amount of choice. ‘This is a huge opportunity for improving customer experience and customer product, ultimately’, he said. The automotive industry is often used as a comparable to offsite construction. But, said Arup’s Timothy Snelson, houses are fundamentally different to cars: ‘you wouldn’t expect me to design a structure that you throw away after 20 years.’ Thus, when systems are built, there need to be ways of addressing the M&E – kitchens and such like cannot be so rigid and fixed into the ‘chassis’. ‘There’s a different challenge in housing. Nobody comes and builds a conservatory on the side of their BMW’.

Flexibility is a key issue. Greystar’s John Tamilia said that in terms of flexibility from a BTR client, developer and operator was that we want to be able to refurbish units easily such as relpace kitchens bathrooms and finishes, but do not generally require total flexibility to change the structure or combine or enlarge individual apartments. So, he said, Greystar does not see modular systems being a barrier to our model.

'Grimshaw Architects & Tufeco are working on software that allows the customer to not only choose the kitchen but also move the shape of the house around it. But there is a misconception around that modular is constrained, said Lomax, which represents a kind of ‘self-flagellation’. ‘We’re addicted to this idea that change brings value. It costs money whatever you’re doing. It still costs money when you’re doing traditional, but nobody ever puts that into the cost plan.’ 

There is an amazing opportunity to think more about collaboration, said Gray, and stop the way teams dissolve as projects finish. ‘Maybe consultants need to stop thinking like consultants and actually buy in’, to buy in and take some risk, as stakeholders.

The think tank also discussed placemaking, Lendlease’s Edwards saying that offsite represented no constraint at places like Elephant and Castle, with benefits including fewer vehicle movements and less disruption for existing residents. Thiel added that variety was important, so that the same things are not delivered across a wider site, and it would be best if savings could be reinvested in public realm and landscaping. Can you make a place with identical components? Of course, said Lifschutz, citing Georgian and Victorian London, so repetition can actually be helpful. ‘If we’re learning from abroad we should also learn from home. It is encouraging that there are precedents for this.’ But the way it worked best was with the big landowners assembling, because they understood place, and would hold onto these pockets of land for, say 400 years. ‘We have to look beyond the immediate process’. With the potentially game-changing PRS, there is the incentive to do so. 

Off site is no panacea, however. As Lomax pointed out, ‘because of the vast number of homes we need to build, it is a danger to say that modular has to be all things to all men’. Perhaps we could learn too about the self-build, citizen-builder, and, said Friend, we ignore at our peril that the digital structure of making is not just at the bigger scale, but at the smaller too. For this to happen would require a greater connection with localised centres of distributed manufacturing similar to the FAB City model. Ultimately though, we have the opportunity of completely redesigning a system for the way we create buildings, said Lifschutz. ‘What we lack is the long-term owner of the project. In the past that has been the landowner – land has always been key to this. And I suspect it will still be.’ 

By David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly  

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