Modular Homes: Banishing the ghost of prefabs past

The future of housebuilding may have more in common with automotive assembly lines than the traditional bricks and mortar approach; if it can free itself from the burden of history, that is

By Mark Cantrell

MODERN methods of prefabrication are haunted by the ghosts of prefabs past. In a sense, then, modular construction techniques suffer an image problem that more rightly belongs to their evolutionary forebears. Talk about the sins of the father.

As Home Group found in a recent survey, public perceptions of modular homes are not based on the homes themselves but rather more on preconceived ideas. In a poll of over 2,000 adults, carried out on its behalf by YouGov, 52% said they would not wish to live in a modular home, with 41% saying they considered them to be less durable than conventionally built homes.

Yet 90% failed to recognise that the home they were shown was of modular construction. By contrast over 70% identified shipping container homes as modular. Clearly, much work remains to be done to change public perceptions, but the survey also points to the potential for changing hearts and minds. Attitudes are far from fossilised.

“We’ve always known that there may be issues with perceptions of modular homes, but it’s reassuring to see that these are not based upon today’s products,” said Brian Ham, Home Group’s executive director of development.

“If we are to respond to the ongoing housing crisis we need to find new and innovative ways of tackling the issue, and modular homes – as well as wider modern methods of construction, including volumetric products – will allow us to deliver homes more efficiently.”

Within the industry, of course, there is a growing sense that the time has come for modular and other modern construction methods.

Earlier this year, law firm Trowers & Hamlins published Is Modular the Answer to the Housing Crisis? The report presented the discussions of a roundtable the firm hosted, chaired by Modernise or Die author, Mark Farmer of the Cast Consultancy. You can probably guess where it went. Is it time we started taking modular construction seriously? Short answer: yes.

“As well as the political impetus behind adopting modern methods of construction, a number of leading developers have now taken up the baton and invested significant time and money into making modular work,” the report said. “The UK is creating an environment where this approach to construction is becoming more commonplace and hopefully will soon be viable for small and medium-sized developers as well as the big players. The investment that has been traditionally lacking is now available both through government channels as well as the private sector and we anticipate that in the next five years the work that has been done behind the scenes will start to pay dividends.”

Indeed, smaller firms have been making inroads into the world of modular construction, showing that what they may currently lack on volume, they make up in pioneering spirit. One such is ilke Homes, the company whose modular home so confounded perceptions in Home Group’s survey. The company has some big ambitions and has recently launched its first show-homes for sale.

“The housing crisis strongly affects people at the affordable end of the market, as rising house prices and the high cost of rent impacts on living standards,” said Björn Conway, ilke’s chief executive. “[M]odern construction techniques offer a real opportunity to speed up delivery of these much-needed new homes and positively addresses the housing crisis.

“The adoption of offsite construction in housebuilding is still in its very early stages in the UK, but these modern technologies can revolutionise the housing market, creating attractive, affordable homes that people want to live in.”

Architect David de Sousa, director at AHR, has no doubt that modular construction has a “vital” role to play in tackling the housing crisis; he also takes issue with that lingering assumption that prefab means jerry-built.

“Contrary to popular belief, [modular construction] does not mean a return to the production of low-quality, prefabricated units, which were commonplace in the post-war era,” he said.

Ben Pritchard, a consultant at Invennt, said: “Companies specialising in off-site methodologies have made huge leaps forward in recent years and modular buildings are a far cry from the exposed concrete and asbestos walls of the 1960s.

“At a time when public spending is tight, modular construction offers local authorities the ability to increase their stock of high-quality housing in a cost-effective way that meets local needs. And while the prefabs of the 1960s were often incompatible with the local landscape, today’s modular buildings offer genuine customisation in both aesthetics and layout that suit the local environment and the needs of local people.”

Technology is perhaps the biggest determining factor in the shift from the prefab methods of old and the new materials and techniques involved in today’s offsite manufacturing approach.

“The innovative processes and technologies that now lie behind modular projects are key to realising efficiency and quality,” de Sousa added. “Architects’ use of building information modelling (BIM), and the alignment of this with modern fabrication processes, creates scope for greater innovation and creativity in off-site construction design.”

The potential for new technology to disrupt traditional methods of construction hasn’t been lost on Enterprise Ireland. The Irish government agency has its eye on the North of England, seeing investment and growth potential there for businesses involved in modular and offsite construction systems.

“At a recent Northern Powerhouse roundtable discussion between industry leaders from Manchester and Dublin, a perfect storm of threats and opportunities was outlined,” said John Hunt, the agency’s senior market advisor for the construction sector.

This “storm” included a regional and national depletion of skills, restrictions of labour movement as a result of Brexit, combined with a need to address “endemic” waste of both materials and labour, greater demands for improved building performance, and the lowest levels of productivity of all the industrial sectors. In short, as Hunt points out – “change is overdue”.

“It has become increasingly acknowledged that the key to unlocking a step change in performance is through a digitally enabled standardisation of housing platforms,” he said. The model would be similar to that adopted by the aviation and automotive industries, where a standardised platform (fuselage and chassis, in these cases) facilitate a high-volume globally manufactured component supply chain.

“As with the most progressed industrial sectors, the standardisation of platforms began with digital design,” Hunt added. “In construction, building information modelling is the technology that facilitates a digital design platform approach and provides seamless interfaces to other digital tools that provide optimum design outcomes.

“Digital, as with all the sectors that have experienced disruption, is at the forefront of the opportunity for unlocking design platforms and realising the benefits of offsite assembly. Ultimately allowing sufficient scale to facilitate a greater investment in more mechanised and productive offsite manufacturing processes.”

The power of new technology can also be a pitfall, however; one should be wary of becoming dazzled by its promise. At the end of the day, it’s a tool to wield, not a magic talisman able to wish our woes away. For all the technological (not to mention marketing) wizardry at our disposal today, modular construction will stand or fall in the public’s eye.

“As an industry, we have a responsibility to employ modular building in the right way,” de Sousa added. “It is essential that we go beyond exclusively modular solutions and integrate modular elements along with the other modern methods of construction and develop well-considered design solutions that respond to their specific site context and environment.

“By using this combined approach, we can unlock the benefits of modular construction while delivering engaging and innovative designs that complement their surroundings and create a real sense of place for thriving communities. This innovation provides a real opportunity to provide the high-quality affordable homes urgently needed across the North of England.”

In the end, then, it’s up to the industry to get it right; otherwise the ghosts of prefab past will continue to haunt the future.

NH

This article originally appeared in the print edition of Northern Housing magazine #1 Summer (July) 2018

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