Spotlight on suburbia, a series: part 4.

Tom Wigg

Tom Wigg, Senior Sustainability Consultant

The cusp of a construction revolution.

In this series, we’re looking at how suburbia might evolve over the next 20 years, considering the myriad of social, economic, political, and environmental factors. Ultimately, we hope it will put suburbia in the spotlight, and highlight new ways to build and deliver housing in this most vital of living environment.

Read part 1
Read part 2
Read part 3

Without a systematic change in the construction sector, global need for infrastructure and housing will be hard to meet.

When it comes to improving productivity in the construction of suburban homes, offsite manufacturing is large part of the puzzle.

Between 1946 and 1949 the Emergency Factory Made Homes programme delivered over 150 thousand ‘temporary’ prefabricated buildings. However, homes that were supposed to provide a stop-gap after World War II remained in place for more than sixty years in some cases. Because of this, the UK public perception of prefabricated homes has historically been of high volume and low quality.

As a consequence, the UK has not seen the revolution in offsite manufactured homes which other European, Asian and North American countries have experienced. However, many of the well-known names in UK construction and housebuilding are investing heavily in their offsite capabilities for a number of reasons.

Less than 150,000 of the required 250,000 homes are constructed each year, but manufacturing offsite can curb this trend by delivering housing projects in half the time of comparable brick-by-brick schemes.

It also has the noted benefits of attracting a younger, more diverse, and more highly skilled workforce into the residential sector.

If the claims of speedier construction, improved thermal performance, lower cost and associated benefits can be realised at the larger scales, it seems inevitable that the housebuilding industry will fully adopt offsite and modular construction. However, significant investment and development of the process is still needed.

The next five years looks set to ‘make or break’ the modular housing industry in the UK. The success of recent smaller schemes has excited a market and caused the injection of high volumes of capital into research, development, and manufacture. However, whilst the proof of concept has succeeded, housebuilders will need to see return on their investment to avoid them reverting back to the bricks-and-mortar attitude which has served them well for the past decades.

Of course, the success of modular housing will hinge on whether or not people are willing to buy them.

A detailed study on the prefabricated housing market in Central and Northern Europe conducted by Roland Berger [59] identifies the UK as a burgeoning market for prefabricated housing in the low density (detached/semi-detached) sector with vast potential to grow.

Historically, there has been little legislative drive tailored specifically to stimulate the market for offsite manufactured homes. However, it seems that Government awareness of the benefits and a consequent willingness to drive progress in the sector
is increasing. As of last year, any publicly funded projects across the Department for Transport, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Education, and
the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence have a ‘presumption in favour’ of offsite manufacture; a move which is thought will catalyse private investment in the sector. However, how this actually manifests itself on projects is not fully clear. It seems that the Government is targeting having at least one offsite option at the option development stage.

Furthermore, the Government’s Construction Sector Deal identifies offsite manufacture as one of the methods to achieving the promises of the Construction 2025 report, published in 2013. These include:

– 33% reduction in the cost of construction and the whole life cost of assets
– 50% reduction in the time taken from inception to completion of new build
– 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the built environment
– 50% reduction in the trade gap between total exports and total imports of construction products and materials

Whilst there are obvious challenges for the sector to overcome before offsite manufactured homes become the norm, with Government demonstrating their support, we may be on the cusp of a construction revolution.

With regulation driving the market towards prefabrication from one side, and consumer
demand for convenience and quality driving it from the other, it is fair to suggest the market may outstrip even these optimistic projections given the necessary
rate of technological development.

Look out for part 5 coming soon.