Building study: George Clarke and TDO’s modular house for Urban Splash

12th April, 2018

The latest model of factory-built home for developer Urban Splash has a clean, contemporary look, says Rob Wilson. Photography Peter Cook.

‘It was a bit like walking into the future,’ says TDO Architects director Tom Lewith of his first visit to the SIG Building Systems factory in the East Midlands. It’s where the Fab House timber cassette modules designed by TDO in collaboration with architect and TV presenter George Clarke were manufactured. They are now installed at Smith’s Dock in North Shields, a joint venture between Urban Splash and Places for People. Urban Splash has recently acquired the factory, securing its supply chain but also showing its long-term commitment to modular construction.

It makes economic sense. Up-front capital costs have often been the stumbling block for modular housebuilders. Cost savings come down the line, not least the massive reduction in material waste of traditional building sites.

Urban Splash has been rolling out modular dwelling units, marketed as House and designed by shedkm, since 2012 on sites in Manchester and Salford, and now Smith’s Dock in North Shields. It also has planning permission for one in Birmingham. Like many other developers, the company is looking to modular construction as both an economical but also environmentally viable option to deliver houses, given the certainties of material and quality control possible with a factory build.

Urban Splash is also looking to contemporary design – as well as marketing – to shift public perception away from lingering pejorative associations with post-war prefabs toward something more aspirational, hence the ‘Fab House’ branding for this version, of which the Smith’s Dock units are the first. Certainly there’s a lot of effort going into this development, leveraging the media-friendliness of George Clarke, himself from the North-East, together with the experience of Urban Splash in modular construction.

‘It’s been three years in R&D,’ says Lewith. The starting point of the design, he recalls, was agreeing with George Clarke general principles of ‘simple forms and exposed materials’. This might once have been a recipe for disaster in a UK housebuilding market comfortable with cod-cottages and aspirational Georgian-style fakery, and it shows how far contemporary architecture has made inroads. Certainly ‘simple forms’ describes the profiles of the 10 two-storey houses so far completed, which play to an unashamedly Modernist aesthetic. Faced in a grey Equitone cladding, they have a dolmen-like quality bordering on the grim in some lights, but there’s a straightforward chunky generosity in the detailing, too, with large vertical fenestration that compares favourably with the toytown brick and wizened windows on adjacent 1980s housing.

They share the Smith’s Dock site – part of the former shipbuilding crust at the mouth of the River Tyne – with the latest and larger three-story iteration of the House – as well as two blocks of non-modular-build flats designed by SimpsonHaugh, currently under construction. The three-storey House units, completed first, are arranged in three curved terraces of eight houses each, which describe a distinctive crescent with views south across the old docks to the Tyne. Behind these, away from the river in definitively cheap-seats position are the two shorter terraces of five Fab Houses apiece, backed up against the slope at the northern edge of the site with light industrial sheds behind. Two units at one end are stepped up slightly, demonstrating that, however off-site construction is, it still needs to hit ground and deal with real variable site conditions.

Concrete groundworks take up the variation in the sloping site. The base cost of £225,000 – for what are described as ‘two and a half bedroom’ homes (the half being a study/children’s bedroom option) – compares with a starting price of £299,999 for the House units. The latter have a choice of pre-ordered floor layouts accommodating anything from three to five-plus bedroom designs, but with the Fab House the layout is fixed. With the resemblance between both types increased by Equitone panel cladding – silver-grey for the House units, lead-grey for the Fab Houses – there is a familial feeling to the ensemble. That said, the floorplates of both are similar for, as Lewith points out, the major design factor in modular construction remains transport, the units’ 5m width and 11m depth determined by road widths and lorry lengths.

While the choice of Equitone as cladding was not a given for the Fab House, it’s one of several key design choices that, having been tested successfully on the House units, were adopted here – in this case allowing services to be accessible behind a single removable panel. The cladding is detailed thoughtfully, with vertical panels staggered and punctuated by a narrower, textured strip between storeys, and a deeper, cornice-like one at the top. Each house is further delineated by a stepped-back panel between them. In all, this has the effect of proportionally balancing and grounding the façades, compared with those of the House units, where the grid of silver-grey panels suggests a metallic skin.

The sense of weight and solidity is underlined by the Fab Houses’ deep reveals – the cassette system and cladding together meaning the windows sit within walls with a depth of 500mm. Protruding Cor-ten cowls to the front door and kitchen window reveals add to the sense of depth. These add a richness to the façades, if also possible rust smears as you enter. Whether, as claimed, the individual rusting of each cowl will actually personalise each house is a moot point – one imagines people painting their front doors would achieve this more easily.

The thresholds to each house are neatly delineated and formed with a stripped-back contemporary take on the suburban model: hedge (here a low herb one) and a square of lawn, with waste and recycling bins encased in chunky timber box structures running up between each pair of houses.

Inside, the layout is simple in the extreme, being – after a small hall with toilet off – predominantly open-plan downstairs. The kitchen essentially forms a large alcove to the front of a single living space, into which the stair drops directly. At the back, full-height French doors lead out to a timber deck, in size and surfacing more terrace than garden.

Ceilings are raised perceptually higher by exposing the timber joists of the module system, while white-painted, MDF-clad walls, full-height doors and blond timber floors are designed to keep the space light and clean and increase the sense of spatial generosity – if lending it a slightly amorphous feel. It’s perhaps a case where, fighting the default open-plan of today, a partial-screen wall to part-separate the kitchen or dining areas, while compromising the single spatial scale, might have led to a greater sense of complexity to the space – indeed given it spaciousness – by helping punctuate its uses.

A noticeable feature is the birch plywood stair – continuing the ‘exposed materials’ principle – which, together with the exposed rafters, gives a tactile, warmer feel to the interiors than in the House units. The stairs, with a skylight above, lead the eye up, animate the centre of the house and allow light to drop down into its depth, solving a perennial issue of the terrace house layout. The constraints of this appear again upstairs, where the priority of maximising light and windows to all rooms, means sacrificing lateral bedrooms in favour of deep shoebox-shaped ones.

The current crop of house-factories might suggest Fordist visions of seamless manufacture – that from manufacture to marketing Reyner Banham’s Second and Third Machine Age have finally been realised in housebuilding. But the process of off-site construction and production is no magic bullet – as Lewith concedes – and, of course, glitches remain. Even with these small number of units, which should arrive on site fully fitted-out, in theory not needing to be entered again by workmen after they leave the factory, several arrived without flooring installed. Off-site manufacture might mean more control, but it does not mean full automation, and the actual processes and materials still used are not revolutionary – carpenters and workmen involved in drilling and cutting, if now out of sight in a factory.

So as yet we’re not talking any Fourth Machine Age of bots or advanced digital fabrication, with the choices these might open up. Indeed, for Lewith, it was the human, collaborative nature of the process –working directly with the fabricators and cutting out the competitive tendering element – that was one of the most rewarding aspects of the process.

These dwellings are necessarily relatively basic and bland, but they feel no more boxy than brick-built equivalents. They are small starter homes, engineered to meet a price, but balanced with a baseline quality in their spec – with standard bathroom fit-outs using Vitra and Grohe products, for instance. Though constrained, overall they are thoughtfully made and designed new homes.

Architect’s view

The brief from our joint venture clients called for an exemplar modular house type. To achieve this, we worked closely with the modular contractor to develop a unique identity which fully embraced the capabilities of modular construction.

Modular construction presents quite specific constraints and offers the best project benefits when elements are simplified and repeated. Our challenge was to develop an exemplar modular house type within these parameters. 

To succeed, Fab House had to be an exemplar on two fronts: a technical exemplar of modular construction, delivering the associated benefits; and also an exemplar of residential architecture when judged against ambitious, contemporary houses, regardless of their method of construction.

Maintaining our focus on the efficiencies and consistency of quality which modular construction brings allowed both these requirements to be met. We saw the project as a test-bed opportunity to introduce a creative tension into the detail design process to uncover and explore design opportunities, so as to arrive at a more evolved design template than existing modular blueprints.

The process itself was extremely collaborative and SIG (now Urban Splash Modular) and ourselves worked closely to finesse details through workshops, exchanging sketches and drawings, reviewing samples, and closely monitoring the progress of the houses through the factory line to ensure no opportunity was missed, and false efficiencies were avoided.

Tom Lewith, director, TDO Architecture

Client’s view

Places for People and Urban Splash are working in joint venture to deliver an entire community on the River Tyne, transforming the former Smith’s Dock shipyard in North Shields into a place where people can live, work and play. We are working with great architects to introduce a range of residential options, with a spectrum of properties suitable for first time buyers and families, as well as those looking to downsize.

One of the key components is modular housing, and we commissioned TDO in collaboration with George Clarke to design an exemplar MMC prefabricated house type which would form part of our first phase. The result is 10 striking homes which are perfect for contemporary living. The TDO team has managed to plan out a space compatible with modern life, with a simple layout, high ceilings, full-height doors and plenty of natural light; while the exposed joists, birch staircase and open beams add detail and warmth, without adding visual clutter. I’m delighted that TDO and George Clarke’s original vision is now a reality.

Nigel Brewer, planning and design director, Places for People

Engineer’s view

To be involved in the realisation of this project with TDO was a fantastic experience. We were engaged from the outset and worked collaboratively with the aim to develop a unique and innovative design with the TDO team.

The project ambition has always been to develop modern, beautiful, architect-designed homes, incorporating modern methods of offsite construction to improve the quality of project delivery. The design aspirations of TDO were clearly communicated and defined. Details were worked through together. Trial elements were manufactured and reviewed to ensure that the full potential of modular construction was captured.

The final house template optimises space with high ceilings, full-height doors and abundant natural light from large windows. The result is factory-built, modern homes, perfect for modern living.

Paul Edwards, design manager, Urban Splash Modular

Working detail

The inherent qualities of modular construction informed the details that our team developed for Fab House. The nature of modular construction means that the floor and ceiling cassettes of each module are stacked on top of one another, doubling the structural build-up. This presented the opportunity to expose the entire depth of the ceiling cassette joists to the room below.

Exposing these glulam joists, which are part of the modular cassettes and would otherwise have been concealed behind ceiling finishes, offered what we considered to be ‘free detail’ in the finish. It also increased ceiling heights to 2.88m and introduced a sense of abundant light and space, an important aspect of the brief.

Cor-ten steel was introduced as a material around the ground-floor front window and door reveals to create a link to the site’s industrial heritage. Each shroud has been allowed to rust in situ and gain a finish unique to each house. The depth of tone in the steel complements the dark grey Equitone cladding board and animates the front elevation.

We set the Equitone cladding off the façade, which resulted in generous reveals and gives the building a sense of depth and weight not usually associated with prefabricated houses. It also allowed us to mount service connections in the void behind, so services could be connected externally on arrival direct from the factory.

Tom Lewith, director, TDO Architecture

Project data

Factory assembly 30 August 2017
Start on site First modules delivered to site 16-17 October 2017; Final modules delivered 30-31 October 2017
Completion March 2018
Gross internal floor area  Ground floor 45.5m2; First floor 45.5m2; Total per house 91m2. Total across 10 plots 910m2
Form of contract Design and Build
Architect TDO Architecture in collaboration with George Clarke
Client Smith’s Dock (joint venture between Places for People and Urban Splash)
Structural engineer Rob Vint Engineering
M&E consultant Service Connections
Quantity surveyor/cost consultant  Gleeds (pre-mobilisation), Urban Splash Construction (post-mobilisation)
Landscape designer Fabrik
Project manager Identity Consult
CDM co-ordinator Rawlings
Approved building inspector MFA
Off-site contractor SIG (now Urban Splash Modular)
Site contractor Urban Splash Construction
CAD software used Vectorworks, Autodesk Revit
Annual CO2 emissions 1,940kg (estimated)

Original link - Architects Journal

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