Why we need a design code for modular homes

Architects should work with manufacturers to establish a design code for all factory-built modular homes, ensuring quality through the sector, writes Assael’s Rory O’Hagan.

A year has already passed since Mark Farmer published his landmark review into the failings of the construction industry, titled ‘Modernise or Die’. Farmer’s report was not created out of thin air. Ailing productivity, an ageing workforce, declining levels of investment in skills and training, low levels of new entrants into the workforce and repeated failures to innovate have all led to an industry that is not fit for purpose. 

As architects, we have a vested interest in the functionality, efficiency and health of the construction sector. Construction turns our designs into a reality. A variety of remedies have been prescribed to help cure this ailing sector, but one method that has been gaining traction is modular construction.

Modular construction is increasingly attractive to a sector already facing labour shortages – a problem that is only going to worsen when free movement comes to an end. By assembling in a controlled factory environment, using production line techniques to complete most of the fit out, both speed of delivery and quality of end product can be dramatically improved. This could be construction’s Ford moment, industrialising the housebuilding sector.

While my optimistic side sees the potential of modular construction in the UK, there remains a few hurdles which our industry must overcome. The first is scale. Just like manufacturing, the benefits accrue with scale, where efficiencies are achieved and economies of scale bring down unit cost. To achieve this transformative scale, we need large developers and investors with big project pipelines to take a long view, be brave and go modular. Undoubtedly, demand for homes is not the issue, but the capacity to deliver them is.

Creating enough modular capacity to make a tangible contribution to the housing crisis requires a more joined-up, collaborative approach across the whole sector. Instead of housing associations looking to set up smaller, bespoke factories to satisfy the demand for houses within their jurisdiction, we need to see mergers and partnerships that drive capacity in the existing factories, which have the recognised accreditations and proven track records.

Of course, backing a few established systems is risky. Not only could you back the wrong horse, but you could also stifle the innovation created from free competition. That’s why creating and establishing a recognised design code is essential to lowering barriers to entry, increasing interoperability and ensuring quality throughout the offsite sector, while remaining agnostic.

There are distinct parallels with car design and development. All cars adhere to universal design constraints, ergonomic constants and safety criteria. Several car manufacturers have adopted a modular design approach whereby a single drivetrain and components are shared across multiple brands and models.

The modular construction sector would benefit from a similar approach, where collaboration among manufacturers, designers and architects aims to drive innovation and capacity in the sector, with the design code establishing the constraints and common parameters for all factory-built modular homes.

Not only would a design code ensure the quality of homes built using modular construction, but it would also help build confidence in the sector. Confidence is in woefully short supply, as many consumers are yet to shake off the negative connotations of post-war prefabs and lenders and investors are – predictably – risk averse to this modern form of construction.

If modular is going scale up, then we – as architects – need to lead by example, working collaboratively to advise and design in a way that secures the future of this emerging build technology.

Rory O’Hagan is a director at Assael.


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