'Non-traditional construction can help us tackle the housing crisis.'
Niki Walton, from our policy and practice team, explores two very different schemes to see how housing organisations are using non-traditional construction to meet local housing need.
Ask many people outside the construction world about factory-built housing and their first thought will be of the thousands of prefabs built to combat the post-war housing shortage. These compact houses, hundreds of which lasted decades longer than their intended ten years, left many with a chequered impression of factory-built housing – while beloved by many residents, after outliving their original planned lifespan many houses succumbed to problems such as rusting steel frames, asbestos, and rotting wood. Little wonder then that in many people’s minds, factory-built housing is part of Britain’s history, not its future.
Yet the reality today is far from this perception. Although making up only a small percentage of current housing construction, factory-built housing is making headway with a variety of new schemes across the country, helping to meet housing need in many communities. These schemes are delivering housing which meets or exceeds current specifications and expectations on energy efficiency, soundproofing, and fire safety. Increasingly, schemes are bringing other benefits to their communities, by focusing on employing local people or providing facilities for the communities or small businesses in their area.
LoCal Homes, based in Walsall, is part of the Accord Group and produces 200 homes a year from its factory – the first factory owned by a housing association. Developed following an investigation by Accord Group into the feasibility of off-site manufacture with a low carbon footprint to produce houses for general development, LoCal Homes opened its factory in 2011 on former railway land, employing local staff, including experienced ex-Longbridge factory workers.
LoCal’s factory produces timber frame homes using a closed panel system with a fire retardant board. Houses benefit from 200mm of insulation in wall panels, giving insulation levels far superior to building regulation requirements. This in turn means the houses are much cheaper to heat than brick-built houses.
In addition to selling homes to other local authorities and housing associations, LoCal Homes has developed a licencing offer enabling other organisations to replicate their panelised system manufacturing for large-scale developments.
Watch a short film about LoCal Homes here.
PLACE/Ladywell occupies a site currently awaiting permanent redevelopment on Lewisham High Street. The redeployable development is constructed from factory-built modules which are assembled onsite to provide community and small business spaces on the ground floor and 24 two-bedroom flats on the upper floors. This provides housing for homeless families in Lewisham who would otherwise be in costly nightly-paid accommodation or rehoused outside the borough, while making use of council-owned land on a temporary basis. Each apartment is 10% larger than London Housing Design Guide requirements, and the development has a design life of 60 years and is redeployable up to five times. Additionally, the apartments have internal acoustics 150% higher than required by building regulations, are fitted with white goods, and are energy efficient.
The success of the scheme has been followed up with plans for a similar scheme on a site in Deptford, with the provision of two- and three-bedroom flats to enable larger families to be housed. This scheme will also see design improvements to the flats based on feedback from PLACE/Ladywell residents, including more controllable heating systems and improved weatherproofing for the balconies.
Watch a short film about the construction of PLACE/Ladywell here.
The diversity of these two schemes demonstrates the flexibility of non-traditional construction methods and their ability to deliver a tailored response to a specific local housing need in a shorter timeframe than traditional brick-built housing. So long as modular and other factory-built housing continues on its current scale, it will pose no threat to the viability of traditional housebuilding methods. However, with the need to deliver new housing more pressing than ever, this could be the time for non-traditional methods of construction to emerge from their niche and make a welcome contribution towards meeting housing need in the UK.
Niki Walton is senior knowledge management and research administrator at CIH.