House building has rebounded since the end of the financial crisis; but to meet the challenge of drastically increasing the size and quality of our housing stock we will have to go further still.
The Housing and Planning Bill making its way through parliament has the clear ambition of increasing the supply of homes in our country. However to meet rising demand, and the government’s necessarily ambitious housing targets, we are going to have to be even more radical.
Step forward Rogers, Stirk, Harbour + Partners, the architectural firm behind Terminal 5, the Millennium Dome and London’s iconic new ‘Cheesegrater’. The firm has been quietly helping to bring about a revolution in affordable house building by pioneering factory-made, pre-fabricated housing units that are fit for the 21st century. Their Y: Cube project in Mitcham, South London is a shining example of why off-site manufactured, modular units – which can be built and assembled in as little as two weeks – could be an exciting concept for the future.
Within 12 months of planning being submitted, each of Y: Cube’s 36 studio flats had tenants living in them – close to a third of the time this would have taken with a traditional build. What’s more, with a construction cost per unit of under £30,000, the local authority is able to now rent them to people on their housing list for just £150 per week or 65% of the local market rate – boosting the supply of genuinely affordable housing and harnessing an energy efficient, zero-waste technology that keeps bills down at less than £10 per week.
The real beauty of this revolutionary method is that the units are ‘fully deployable’, meaning they can be easily picked up and moved elsewhere. This strikes directly at the inhibitive problem of there being not enough land available: factory-made housing can be erected on plots earmarked for future developments that have yet to begin, or on land which the government can’t permanently divest.
This can be seen in Lewisham where a pop-up village of 24 factory-built, two-bed homes is about to be installed for four years on land that will be developed eventually by the local authority. Unlike bricks and mortar temporary housing, which would likely have to be demolished and is rarely cost-effective, when the time comes these units can simply be loaded up and redeployed to somewhere else where there is demand. They don’t scupper the plots for future development, indeed their temporary installation may also cause the price of the land to rise in the interim by virtue of the communities they can create.
The Government should look at how public land can be used to support more projects that harness this approach and at whether, given the low level of construction disruption such developments cause, they could be fast-tracked through planning. This would certainly be in keeping with the themes underpinning the Government’s Housing and Planning Bill, which I have consistently supported, and was received warmly by the Housing Minister during a debate I organised earlier this week.
Off-site manufactured housing is not the silver bullet that solves the housing crisis – and this revolution in affordable homes should not be allowed to distract us from building the volume of permanent homes via traditional means which we sorely need. However this technique does offer something different and could be incredibly valuable. The judges of the Manser Medal (“the World Cup of Houses”) agree; describing mass factory-produced housing as an “innovative, outstanding and radical step away from the traditional mud and mess of the domestic building site”.
If we are to get on top of the housing crisis, this could be just the dose of radicalism that is needed.