Architects and designers must ‘embrace’ factory-made housing

Wednesday 13 February 2019

Factory-made housing is only one part of the solution to building better homes, long-term. But it is an area with growing government support that architects and other designers need to fully embrace.

That was the clear consensus from an NLA debate held to kick off the Surface Design Show last week in association with RIBA London.

NLA chairman Peter Murray began by pointing out the uncertainty surrounding Brexit in terms of the Romanian and Polish construction workers that make up such a large part of the workforce in the UK, along with the ageing construction force which will also be likely to leave the industry. ‘We have a real labour problem but it is thought that factory made housing will fill at least a part of that gap’, he said. But we also need 65,000 houses a year, and traditional methods are only producing around half that number. Perhaps, then, we need to learn lessons of history, when almost 500,000 prefabricated homes were produced per year when Harold Macmillan was the minister for housing, delivering based on wartime management strategies. But is there the demand to keep the factories currently being built to produce housing open?

Project delivery director at Hawkins Brown Nigel Ostime said the notion of how factory-made housing can contribute was about topping up traditional build. ‘But if we are to meet the quality and urgency of need, we need to bring new supply chains and new housing providers if we are to bolster what we have at the moment’, he said. ‘And this is one way off-site can help’. The need is for genuinely affordable housing, Ostime went on, but we are only now seeing the likes of Legal and General and Berkeley providing ‘vertically-integrated housing supply’ – incorporating site supply and manufacture. The factory environment also encourages wider diversity, which the industry badly needs, he added, but, he asked, are we doing enough to overturn the pre-conceptions about prefabricated homes? ‘Probably the best way to address that is to build them, and let people see what they are like, because the quality is there’.

Hazel Rounding of Shed KM said that ‘prefabricated homes can give you greater flexibility and greater quality housing’, but that has to start with the design process. The practice ‘stumbled into the market’ by looking at a new house type, delivering modular in Manchester, before challenging and ‘upsetting’ the housing market with alternatives to the red brick house. Instead of rooms, it was about providing space, as in the office market, enabling greater flexibility and a template taken down a volumetric construction route. ‘It has to be about designing better homes’, she said. ‘In the housing market today, we have always just accepted what we are given’.

Jane Richards, Head of Discipline – Structures, WSP helped produce a report for the House of Lord’s on the back of Mark Farmer’s ‘Modernise or Die’ report and looking into how to change the environment to encourage more off-site. But the issue is much wider than just housing, said Richards, and there has been a notable shift, particularly inside government, which has moved to being in favour of considering off-site manufacture. ‘It has moved on to not if, but how?’, she said. Homes England has been a particular proponent in this move. ‘This is now the future and it is more a case of how we respond to it’. WSP has worked on a modular system for Berkeley Homes, while other vanguard organisations are also recognising its benefits. But the pre-fabs of today are far more flexible than they were in the past, Richards added, so perhaps it was time to find new terminology. ‘The easiest type of building to turn into a standardised project is housing so we should just embrace that’. 

Points raised in discussion included the notion that standardisation improves productivity in an industry badly affected by tail-offs in this area over recent years and should be ‘embraced’ rather than architects fearing it; that component design should also be focused upon, and, anyway, broad similarity in design was a positive thing for cities in Victorian terraced housing, for example.

‘Sometimes it isn’t the answer, and it is not the only answer’, said Rounding. ‘It is a part of the industry’. But the picture has changed dramatically since even six months ago, added Richards. ‘We are in this changing state and we as designers need to recognise that and move with it. We need to not keep churning out the same advice’.


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