When we think of the future of housing our imaginations easily take over, conjuring images of AI-controlled homes which adapt to our needs before we can even register them. But although such ‘smart homes’, integrating the latest technology into the fabric of the built environment, are increasingly playing a part in modern design, the key area of concern for our future housing should be quantity over quality.
It won’t be news to anyone, whether in the industry or not, that the UK is facing a severe housing shortage, in particular in the social housing sector. Earlier this year, UK charity Shelter reported that three million new social homes would need to be built over the next 20 years in order to meet demand, with reports from other sources finding that there are currently 825 homes for every 1,000 families in England. It’s clear that consideration of our cities built environment and skylines needs to take into account housing solutions as well as taking our commercial sector to new heights.
The race is on, then, for the construction industry to develop new solutions to meet the heavy pressures of this housing demand, whilst also taking into account key environmental considerations. But in our hunt for new ideas we may have forgotten the answers that lie in the past. In fact, when it comes to housing solutions, the homes of the future might well be familiar.
Prefabricated (‘prefab’) homes have struggled to shake their dated image since their heyday in the ‘50s, the word becoming synonymous with low quality building and less than desirable aesthetics. However, the advantages presented by modular housing, partially assembled before arriving on site, are of increasing importance to today. The return of this building strategy could be the answer our sector is searching for.
The speed in erecting structures, estimated to cut construction time by as much as half, is the key recommendation of modular construction; the ability to build quickly is vital if we’re to make up the current housing shortfall whilst the population continues to increase. Reduced programme times for each structure would unlock the mass house building the UK desperately needs, yet modular construction in 2019 would differ from that prior to the millennium. Incorporating the latest technology into production – including the use of robot technology – would mean that detail and quality would not be sacrificed in the name of speed, and the new houses would be designed for longevity and not as a stop gap, as in the 1950s.
This reduced construction time would simultaneously help address an evolved need in the 21st century: ensuring sustainable development. The energy and resources saved through a reduced construction period is not only beneficial to the developer but to the environment too, cutting the carbon footprint and impact of each project. Assembling the structure as much as possible before it arrives on site also means disruption to the local environment is minimised, reducing the presence of vehicles and machinery to the site. As we work to address the UK’s housing needs at the same time as those of the planet, the sustainability benefits modular construction provides would be foolish to ignore.
Finally, it would be wrong to think that prefabricated structures necessitate a sacrifice of design. For example, work my company supported at Kingston Road in Wimbledon saw us assist in the plans for a new residential building comprising five two-storey modular residential units, making up 13 flats. Standing on the former site of a steel frame warehouse, this new building was shaped to reflect this history and the geometry of the original warehouse, creating a striking and original structure, worlds away from a 1950s mold.
As we consider how best to meet the demands and pressures of the present it would be short-sighted to outright reject ideas from the past simply due to stereotypes. Taking inspiration from history doesn’t mean an identical replication of its strategies, but rather combining these with the new resources at our disposal to build to a future which answers all our needs.
By Kevin Lyons, Director at Lyons O’Neill