Will modular housing reinvigorate the profession, or destroy it?

9th October, 2017

Architects pioneering a new generation of prefabs are hoping to prove themselves indispensable, reports Colin Marrs.

Within days, plans will be submitted that could mark a watershed in housing delivery in the UK. The applications – for around 65 intermediate-rent, housing association homes on two sites in south-west London – might not sound like much to get excited about. But they will be the first to roll out of Legal & General’s much-heralded new modular factory near Leeds, which could ramp up production to provide 3,000 new homes each year. 

L&G has teamed up with housing association RHP, which will manage the homes, to test its Launchpod product – stackable, self-contained 26m2 one-bedroom apartments for rent. The concept has been developed by London-based architect Wimshurst Pelleriti – one of a number of practices that are driving a new-found interest in modular housing. 

But are these pioneering architects unwittingly helping to create templates that will eventually put themselves out of a job? Or is this latest prefab push an opportunity for architects to re-establish a leading role in the delivery of new homes following their marginalisation by volume housebuilders?

With traditional housebuilders’ business model geared towards building out slowly, it is unsurprising that a government keen to boost delivery is becoming increasingly interested in modular. 

A number of its funding programmes now include procurement criteria specifically favouring modern methods of construction. Speaking about modular housing in the House of Commons in September, communities secretary Sajid Javid said: ‘We are setting out ways of making it more pervasive throughout the country.’

Architects currently working on modular schemes are almost exclusively delivering rental products. Unlike traditional housebuilders, clients such as L&G and RHP are attracted to the technology because of the speed of delivery it allows. 

‘If you are taking nine months off the build programme, that is nine months’ extra rent you will get coming in,’ explains Rory O’Hagan, director at Assael Architecture. ‘In addition, institutional clients can take a longer view and provide up-front capital that the housebuilders are unable to.’

Apart from their reliance on their traditional business model, there is, however, nothing intrinsically stopping housebuilders from producing modular homes for private sale, says Andrew Partridge, associate partner at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. 

His practice recently provided 24 modular homes for local people in housing need in Ladywell, south-east London, for the London Borough of Lewisham’s affordable housing vehicle. But the homes could just as easily be sold on the open market. ‘It is actually tenure blind,’ he says. ‘The way they are built and manufactured, they are a very good product and will last as long as a traditional building.’

Darren Jones, associate at ShedKM, worked on designs for Urban Splash’s modular HoUSe product, which is providing homes on a number of sites in Greater Manchester and in North Shields, Tyneside. Jones is quick to reject any notion that modular design – mostly based around the design and fit-out of rectangular boxes – requires less creativity than traditional homes. 

‘You need to think about the arrangement and how you respond to site conditions,’ he says. ‘It is like making a car – you have a basic chassis but can have different designs.’

In many cases, all the architect’s creativity is needed to avoid modular schemes looking monotonous or out-of-place. ‘It would be easy for modular housing to look prefabricated or cover it in cheap-looking render,’ says Will Wimshurst, director at Wimshurst Pelleriti. ‘We want to deliver schemes that are contextual to the site – not to churn out the same thing over and over. It doesn’t have to look like modular just because you are working with a 4m building grid.’

Assael’s O’Hagan is also keen to help the sector move beyond prefabricated housing’s association with flat, characterless façades. ‘We have done a lot of work to create layering on the façades,’ he says. ‘Much of this comes from concerns raised by planners and there is plenty of scope to be expressive in this area.’ Among the small pool of manufacturers producing modular homes, some are helping architects achieve more ambitious floorplates, according to Simon Bayliss, managing partner at HTA Design. 

‘Some are very focused on big rectangular boxes of set sizes. Some are more flexible, and we have done projects with triangular and wedge-shaped and parallelogram-shaped modules,’ he says. ‘We have not found that to be a significant problem, but not everyone has cracked it yet.’

Bayliss admits the stacking nature of modular is ‘more constraining’ than concrete-framed buildings ‘but that is just something to work with to come up with the most innovative solution’.

Most of the prototype schemes in development are low-rise, partly because the industry is still learning and refining modular techniques. But as the industry becomes more confident about adopting modern manufacturing technologies, and banks’ fears about mortgaging such buildings are overcome, taller residential schemes are likely to become more common.

Higher-rise schemes do, however, demand slightly more work to ensure stability and strength, according to Partridge. ‘After about four to six storeys you have to start to engineer it a bit more,’ he says. ‘You can go up to about 35 storeys but you just have to engineer it more and more. You might put a bit of steel in if you have to. We are not completely locked into timber, but use what is appropriate.’

In addition to improving the appearance of modular schemes, architects are helping enhance the manufacturing process itself. ShedKM has collaborated with Urban Splash and manufacturer SIG Offsite to speed up production at the factories producing its modules, according to Jones.

‘It is now an efficient production line,’ he says. ‘Each module starts at one end of the factory and every day moves to the next station along the line. If something is holding things up then we can design something to take that block away. Originally, lots of different tradesmen were trying to work on the bathrooms at the same time, holding things up. We were able to take this process off the production line and make bathroom pods separately and simultaneously.’

But is such collaboration merely helping manufacturers to perfect their processes to the point where architects are no longer needed? 

David Birkbeck, chief executive of Design for Homes, says: ‘The move to modular systems will undoubtedly bring pressure for repetition.’ He points out that architects are already frozen out by many traditional housebuilders, remarking: ‘If the system goes more modular, the number involved could drop further.’

But Wimshurst is more optimistic, believing that demand for the skills architects can bring to modular products is likely to endure. ‘If you think about the iPhone,’ he says, ‘it is driven by the principle of being the leader in the market. To be successful, you need to keep updating and changing. Also, you need to be able to make a community. Making the ground floor and public realm perform effectively will always be a design parameter.’

Partridge says that, while offsite housing can sometimes feel like a churned-out product, modular can still be bespoke. ‘Maybe there will come a time when there is a pattern book of details and units, and architects would be much more of a custodian of that. But I think we have got a little bit of time before we get there.’ 

And he is not scared of such a vision of the future. ‘It wouldn’t be bad because it would mean we have more manufacturing capability and are able to resolve things for people a lot quicker,’ he says. 

Architects willing to embrace new ways of working and collaborating with modular manufacturers and rental providers are likely to find their skills in high demand. Whether the industry finally breaks through into the housebuilding mainstream will partly depend on the success or failure of L&G’s attempt at market disruption.

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