Modular construction for residential

Andrew Prickett
No recent government has seen sufficient homes built to keep up with demand and housing deprivation continues to grow. Could modular construction make a greater contribution?

Housing is devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so the UK government is only responsible for housing in England. 184,000 homes were completed in England in 2016/17, more than in recent years, but still below the 2007/08 pre-recession peak of 200,000—and some way off the targeted 300,000 a year by the mid-2020s. Affordable housing is the area of greatest concern, with Shelter's 2019 report claiming that 1.3m homes are required to house those in most need, including homeless people and those living with a disability.

Can modular help?

Modular construction could play an important part here. The principle is well-documented, focusing on moving from a construction to a manufacturing approach, using production-line techniques. A range of different technologies are used, in which a proportion of the construction is completed under controlled plant conditions and then transported to site. At Faithful+Gould, most of our enquiries fit the volumetric definition of modular (building the entire home in a factory and craning it into place).

There are clear benefits and many of them address the criticisms often thrown at housebuilders:

  • Better quality homes
  • Faster delivery
  • Less labour needed on site
  • Increased productivity
  • Creating more regional jobs away from large conurbations
  • Improved health and safety for workers
  • Building safety advantages—easier to ensure buildings meet quality assurance standards
  • Improved sustainability
  • Reduced disruption to the local community during construction
  • Avoiding delays caused by UK weather.

An image problem?

One of the barriers is negative perception. Memories of post-war prefab housing are still uppermost in the minds of many policymakers, housebuilders and residents. Yet today’s modular features ground-breaking design, high quality and energy efficiency. With today’s technology, it should be impossible to distinguish between modular and traditional build when looking at the completed product. Standardisation and innovation really can co-exist.

What’s needed to move modular forward?

Should the government take the initiative on modular or leave it to the private sector? Housing has the highest ministerial churn (18 ministers since 2007), demonstrating a lack of the long-term investment and continuity needed for successful housing policies. Surely we can do better than this, with greater cross-party alliance so that initiatives can be planned and delivered without restriction from an elected term?

The government could stimulate public sector uptake in modular house building by mandating its use, unless a clear business case exists for traditional build. This progressive approach is working well in the education sector. A pilot scheme at decent scale—at least 200 to 300 units—is urgently needed, to build experience and confidence. Planning policy doesn’t currently support modular, with the National Planning Policy Framework lacking provision for it, making access to land more difficult. This should be addressed.

Many manufacturers are SMEs, with production lines currently working under their optimum capacity. They need visibility of pipeline to invest and build their businesses, increasing their productivity.

We also need clients to think differently, to take the opportunity to be innovators and disrupters, and to benefit from being at the forefront. We’re seeing this in some early adopter local governments, but more are needed. Manchester City Council, for instance, has been in discussion with manufacturing suppliers looking at solutions to meet its affordable housing needs.  Faithful+Gould is the multi-disciplinary consultant acting on behalf of the council for this initiative.

Faithful+Gould can help

Faithful+Gould acts as an integrator, enabling clients to make informed choices and deliver the homes they envisage. We’ve invested in upskilling our workforce, ensuring that our procurement strategy, and our project, programme and cost management expertise, are effectively tailored towards best practice use of modular.

We’ve made it our business to know which manufacturers are the thought leaders, and we can recommend robust supply chains that we’re confident can deliver. We can bridge the gap between modular manufacturers and developers/funders. For us, this isn’t entirely new—we’re incorporating lessons learned from the education sector, where we have supported the DfE in their pioneering use of modular.

Listen to our podcast on offsite manufacturing modular housing, where Andrew Prickett, UK Head of Residential at Faithful+Gould, is in discussion with Andrew Teacher from Blackstock Consulting and Tony DiCarlo, Developer and Investor at Innerspace Homes.


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