Housing models for the future

Housing is one of the challenges of our time. The task for architects and designers is to create affordable, robust housing that can accommodate the needs of a rapidly growing, but also ageing population. And it’s not as easy as simply building. The demands and expectations on house builders to also be community builders and the architects of mental and physical wellbeing through design have led architects and designers to consider alternative ways to house us in the future. This includes innovative use of materials and construction methods, addressing the issue of financing through co-operative living models and using bespoke design to create lifetime homes which can be adapted to accommodate the changing needs of our population.

Large-scale development

One of the big challenges for urban areas is large-scale development strategies for designing and delivering housing to meet need. For developers and planners going forward there are a number of factors to consider: the type of investment introduced to an area; how the schemes fit with a wider development plan for the city; and the importance of engaging the community in any plans to develop or regenerate an area.

“Placemaking”, not just house building is central to large scale development discussions, emphasising to planners, architects and developers the fact that they are not just building houses, but creating communities. As a result, designers and developers should be mindful of their important role in community building, to build the right sort of homes in the right places, at affordable prices and with a legacy in mind. They should, create high quality, long lasting units, which will stand the test of time but that also can be easily adapted to accommodate people’s changing needs.

Alternative construction and design

Innovative models and options for future builds have been discussed for a number of years but they are becoming an increasingly mainstream way to build affordable housing that meets the current need, particularly of students and young professionals, and of older populations looking to downsize or move into assisted care accommodation.

Offsite manufacture or modular homes  Offsite manufacture of timber framed houses is becoming increasingly common, with the constituent pieces of the house manufactured off site, then transported to the site and constructed on a concrete block where foundations and services such as plumbing have already been created. Offsite housing can either be open panel, which requires the finishing such as bathroom and kitchen installation to be done on site, or closed panel which provide the entire section complete with decoration and flooring (this is becoming a common way to build cheap, efficient student housing).

Custom build  Custom build projects are similar to self-build in that they give clients flexibility to select their own design and layout, However, custom build provides slightly more structure and certainty which can make it easier when considering elements like financing and planning applications. In essence, customers select the spec of their house in the same way they might make custom modifications to a car.

Build to rent  This model has been adapted from the United States, where build to rent is popular. The model is based on self-contained flats, with central and shared amenities, entrance and communal space. Designed to attract graduates and young professionals, these are being increasingly designed using a “user first” approach. Developers identify the sort of person they want to live in the development, identify what sort of things they might look for in a development, including floor type, furniture, layout, amenities, gadgets, and then build the development around that.

Dementia friendly – Building homes that are safe and affordable, but allow for independence in old age, is one of the major demands on house builders currently. Housing stock is seen as not suitable for current need, but building bespoke sites for people with illnesses like dementia has been seen as a bit of a niche previously. Virtual Reality (VR) is being used by some architects and developers to try to help them understand the needs and requirements of people with dementia and how they can build homes suitable for them to be able to live as independent and full lives as possible. Building dementia friendly homes not only means making them accessible and open plan, but also adapting the layout, adding signage where appropriate and if possible locating the homes within a wider community development. Dementia villages like those seen in Amsterdam are being used as the model for this.

Co-housing

Co- housing offers an alternative to communities in Scotland, and while lessons can be learned from elsewhere in Europe, where co- housing models have been successful, there are also pockets of good and emerging practice in the UK too. More traditional examples include Berlin, where almost 1 in 10 new homes follow the Baugruppe model, and Amsterdam (centraal wonen) where some of the oldest co-housing projects originate. In Denmark, 8% of households use co-housing models.

Co-housing provides the opportunity for groups of people to come together and form a community which is created and run by its residents. Each household has a self-contained, private home as well as shared community space. Residents come together to manage their community, share activities, and regularly eat together. A “Self-build Cooperative Group” is a joint venture between several private households who plan and build their own house together. Usually they are supported by an architect. Often co- housing groups are able to realise high-quality living space at prices below local market rates, although it is not really considered suitable for large-scale development within the current UK market.

Opportunities for a new way forward

Practitioners are often challenged to push the boundaries of design and building in their field. Looking to new models for future building design provides an opportunity to think creatively about alternative uses of materials and space and to consider options for construction, funding and investment in the built environment that challenge the norm. Learning lessons and exchanging ideas from elsewhere, architects and planners have the opportunity to come together to consider how the built environment in Scotland can help to create places  not just buildings  and how this can contribute positively to the wider wellbeing and happiness of people living in Scotland in the future.


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Prefabs sprout: could factory-built homes tackle the housing crisis?

Long regarded as a relic of the past, prefabricated housing is now emerging as a potential solution for the UK’s chronic shortage of affordable homes.

Britain’s golden age of prefabricated housing happened after World War II, when the government authorised thousands of factory-built homes to replace housing destroyed by bombing raids. Intended to last for no more than ten years, many prefab homes were still occupied thirty years after construction.

For a period during the 1960s, prefab housing enjoyed a resurgence. One scheme was showcased at Montreal’s Expo 67 as a solution for high-quality housing in dense urban environments. But in Britain prefabs became associated with shoddy, damp and dysfunctional housing. The largest remaining post-war prefab estate, located in London is now facing demolition.

The prefab renaissance

In recent years, prefabricated housing has been rebranded and is now showing signs of making a comeback:

  • In Yorkshire, the Legal & General insurance firm has opened the world’s largest modular homes construction factory.
  • In Manchester, regeneration company Urban Splash is developing a 43-home scheme, with each house designed by the customer, then built offsite and shipped to the New Islington estate.
  • In Lewisham, south London, Rational House is working with AECOM to build “off-the-shelf” homes for young professionals struggling to get on the property ladder.

Renewed interest in prefab housing has been driven by the severe shortage of housing in the UK, along with the rising cost of traditional construction methods. At the same time, new materials and construction techniques have made prefab homes a more economic and attractive option. This week, leading engineering firm Laing O’Rourke has suggested that the acute lack of space in Britain’s cities could lead to the next generation of tower blocks being built almost entirely off-site.

In its 2017 housing white paper, the government proposed measures to stimulate the growth of the offsite construction sector and promote more factory built homes through the Accelerated Construction programme and the Home Builders’ Fund. The paper highlighted Creekside Wharf in Greenwich as a good example of prefab housing’s potential.

The benefits and challenges of prefab housing

The champions of prefab housing argue that it provides comfortable, well-insulated homes that can be constructed much more quickly than traditional building. Offsite construction can deliver a modern prefab apartment block in half the time that it would take to build using traditional methods, which means that units for sale or rent can start making money more quickly. Proponents also argue that offsite construction generates less noise, dust and disruption for neighbours. And although offsite costs remain higher, the margin is narrowing as prefab manufacturing achieves efficiencies of scale.

But although today’s prefab homes are a world away from their post-war forerunners, critics have argued that contemporary prefab housing is no match for a traditionally-constructed home. There have also been concerns that prefab homes could be deployed as a quick fix. The Guardian’s architecture and design critic, Oliver Wainwright commented:

“If taken up as the silver bullet to endless waiting lists, there’s a very real risk it could sow the seeds for a future of cheaply built, meanly scaled, less stable housing that can be conveniently swept away at a moment’s notice.”

Some have expressed concern that factory-built homes could end up deskilling traditional building, but others believe that prefabricated housing could plug a skills gap in the construction sector after the UK leaves the European Union.  Meanwhile, lenders to developers are still cautious about financing prefab projects until their long-term durability has been tested.

Prefab present…

Despite these reservations, prefab housing is shedding its outdated image and increasingly entering the mainstream housing sector. In some areas, factory-built housing is already being deployed to help people with urgent housing needs.

The architecture firm of Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners is internationally famous for its cutting edge projects, from Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Five to the National Assembly for Wales. But in 2015, the firm joined forces with the London Borough of Merton, the YMCA and Aecom to create Y:Cube. The first 24-home Y:Cube development is located at Mitcham in south-west London, and took just five months to build. Tenants come from YMCA hostels and Merton’s housing waiting list, finding the flats as welcome alternatives to hostels and B&B accommodation. A similar project is taking place to provide Y:Cube accommodation for local people with acute housing needs in the London borough of Lewisham.

Beyond the capital, further prefab housing developments are in the making:

  • Manchester City Council has been leading an offsite construction consortium of 17 housing associations with the aim of building hundreds of new homes in the north of England.
  • In December 2016, Your Housing Group announced a partnership with a Chinese construction firm to deliver 25,000 prefabricated homes over the next five years.
  • Swan Housing Association is building an 18,000 sq ft factory to deliver new homes for the regeneration of Basildon’s Craylands estate.

…and prefab future?

While prefab housing is gathering pace, one entrepreneur is taking the concept to the next level. Alastair Parvin, a graduate of Sheffield University’s school of architecture, believes that harnessing the possibilities offered by technology can make building a house more straightforward.

The idea behind Parvin’s “WikiHouse” is to enable users to draw up plans for their new home online. But instead of the house then being constructed at one offsite location, the components will be manufactured by a network of small business and community spaces – known as maker-spaces.

We’ve come a long way from the prefab housing of the post-war years, and perhaps there’s some way to go before the vision of the WikiHouse is realised. In the meantime, prefabricated housing could offer a much-needed boost to tackling the nation’s existing housing shortfall.


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