Modular mindsets - adapt or die, architects warned

Saturday 13 October 2018

© Agnese Sanvito

The architecture profession needs to lead a switch to adopting a ‘modular mindset’ or risk being led, and pushed to the periphery of construction.

So said Andrew Waugh of Waugh Thistleton towards the end of a conference at NLA on the progress being made on creating ‘factory-made’ housing as an important constituent of easing London’s housing crisis.

For Waugh, a leading proponent in the use of timber in schemes like Murray Grove, Dalston Works and the MultiPly installation now standing in the Crescent of Store Street outside the NLA, it was critical that architects embrace moves to efficient, high quality offsite construction methods. ‘The architecture profession needs to lead this, or we will be led’, he said. ‘We need to be understanding and in charge of these parametrics, otherwise these parametrics will be in charge of us’

London Assembly member Nicky Gavron, who is leading a charge in this area in some parts of government, spoke from the floor at the conference, and said she was ‘energised’ by the advances the professions had made in this area a year on from a similar talk and from the launch of the report ‘Designed, sealed, delivered’. Gavron said that embodied carbon was a key element in Modern Methods of Construction’s favour, with environmental savings, and savings in energy bills for residents too. But in addition to these facets it was important to keep up the momentum, especially concerning the London Plan’s upcoming examination in public. ‘We have to be really careful that we are emphasizing quality’, she said. ‘It could be stillborn if we don’t change perceptions’.

Keynote speaker at the event James Murray, deputy mayor for housing and residential development said the GLA’s goal was to make sure a greater proportion of housing was constructed through precision manufacturing. ‘We inherited a situation collectively where the dominant building model is not one that can deliver the home we need’, he said. ‘80% of new homes built for sale are affordable to just 8% who need them’. Building trust amongst the public in terms of the quality of this output will be key, Murray added, but a question remained around what kind of intervention the public sector needed to make. ‘Our conclusion is that we won’t back any particular methodology so we avoid the Betamax problem’, he said, but pointed to help it had provided in terms of investing in solutions such as that used by Pocket in Croydon. Ultimately though, precision manufacturing could help build a London that we can be proud of. ‘We need to make sure more people are talking about it, thinking about it, and collaborating’, he said.

Mark Farmer, author of the Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model said a lot had happened since he wrote the report two years ago, with moves afoot on some of the 10 recommendations it made, including how central Government is moving five of its departments to MMC by 2019 subject to best value. ‘I’d give it a six out of ten in terms of what I asked for and where we are’, he said. But if we are to achieve an increase in capacity to get to near 70,000 homes per year, said Farmer, we need to think differently about delivery. Brexit is a potential problem in terms of its effects on labour flow, while Farmer’s work on the mortgage side of the equation has been the hardest thing he has done. The evolution of technology, though, will change the industry forever, he added, with augmented reality, virtual reality, modularisation offsite, machine learning and deep learning all ‘constellations’ he believes will join up.

It was worth remembering, said Kevin Gray, architectural adviser at Be First Regeneration, that it took just five months to build the Crystal Palace, less time than it takes to build the average house at the moment. Be First is researching the history of prefabrication and technology to educate itself and grapple with some of the issues to inform its 50,000 homes target. But it was key to offer the same opportunities in terms of quality to potential residents that they enjoy in other consumer products, said Gray.

Apartments for London design and technical manager Seema Mistry said this was an area that was here to stay, so needed to be ‘embraced’. Her organisation is doing so on small sites, but, asked a questioner during Q&As, is all of this stifling creativity? Farmer was clear that it does not. ‘If you have a modular system that creates cookie-cutter design then it has failed’, he said. 

The second session on ensuring design quality featured Waugh showing his practice’s research and design in timber and ‘carbon journey’. ‘We talk about prefabrication and industrialisation but first we talk about quality’, he said. Mark Baigent of PLACE, meanwhile, focused on his organisation’s use of meanwhile sites and the creation of homes on otherwise ‘wasted’ plots, with 200 modules set to be provided to member boroughs. ‘We want to be able to scale this up and roll it out across the whole of London’, he said. And Pollard Thomas Edwards associate partner Justin Laskin took the audience through his practice’s designs for 251 new homes in Basildon and a client in Swan that briefed the architect to come up with ‘at least a million different combinations’.  ‘There is a real demand for this level of customer choice’, he said, albeit adding as one of his six top tops that ‘design for manufacture is not a substitute for good design’. Finally, White Arkitekter director of London Studio Linda Thiel provided a host of examples of the use of modular from Sweden, where almost 90% of housing is produced offsite. Such technology reduces time on site by 30% and improves conditions on safety, ‘but it really is about the quality of everyday life in these places that is important. You can never really rely on a system solely. You need to challenge even what the factory can do and focus on the end product, and who will live in these spaces’.

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly 
@Davidntaylor

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