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5: Faster, Better Homes


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Faster, Better Homes. Would you live in a home built in a factory?

The scale of the housing crisis is well-documented; we all know the UK needs more homes. But what if there was a faster way to build better, more eco-friendly housing?

This episode looks at whether modular construction – in which homes are built in a factory and then assembled on site - could be the answer. If it is the panacea we’ve been looking for, why aren’t all our homes being built in this way? We challenge some of the biggest misconceptions around modular development. From embedding new skills to solving societal issues around deprivation and housing poverty, we ask to what extent modular development could change how we build our homes, now and in the future?

Our guests speakers are Ben Adams from Arcadis, Jez Sweetland from Bristol Housing Festival, Richard Hyams from AStudio Architects, Richard Brown, Centre for London and soundbites from Harriet Harriss at the Pratt School of Architecture, NYC.

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Emma Nelson [00:00:03]
Hello and welcome to Long Story Short, the podcast from Arcadis UK in which we explore the future of our cities and the people who live, move, work and play in them. I'm Emma Nelson, and coming up today. Faster, better and more plentiful. The rise and rise of the modular home.

Harriet Harriss [00:00:23]
When we think about modular, there's something of the sort of social utopianism attached to that phrase that I think has helped it.

Emma Nelson [00:00:32]
My guests today are architects and city experts all committed to thinking outside the housing box.

Richard Hyams [00:00:38]
If you were to say, here's a car built in your front garden and here's a car built in a factory. Which one would you prefer? No one is going to say, I want the car built in my front garden.

Emma Nelson [00:00:48]
We'll ask if we've got the skills to build, and whether we'll look back at this as the era of the flat pack house that stood the test of time.

Ben Adams [00:00:56]
It's about people having an open mind when they think about modular homes and to actually take the time, go and visit one.

Richard Brown [00:01:01]
There's scope for a big public education programme, looking at design competitions so that these start to become aspirational things.

Emma Nelson [00:01:09]
That's all ahead on Long Story Short, the pre-fab(ulous) future of cities podcast from Arcadis.

Emma Nelson [00:01:15]
And a very warm welcome to today's programme. Joining me in the studio:

Ben Adams [00:01:18]
Ben Adams from Arcadis and I help people to create modular homes.

Richard Hyams [00:01:23]
Richard Hyams I'm the founder of AStudio Architects.

Richard Brown [00:01:26]
And Richard Brown, I'm Research Director at the Centre for London, we're a think-tank for the capital.

Emma Nelson [00:01:30]
And joining us on the line from Bristol.

Jez Sweetland [00:01:32]
I'm Jez Sweetland from the Bristol Housing Festival.

Emma Nelson [00:01:35]

Gentlemen, thank you for joining me today. Now, modular homes have been called lots of things, both good and not so good. Some people claim they're the future of housing. Others have dismissed them as caravans without wheels. Despite that, they've sprung up at top speed in our housing hotspots all over the world. They promise to house our homeless, our students and first time buyers. But do we know what a modular house is? Here's a quick, rather unscientific survey.

General public [00:02:05]
I don't know what it is. But if I did and I liked it, I'd probably live in one.

General public [00:02:09]
I guess it's probably something that you see on Grand Designs or some kind of lego style, modular, German thing.

General public [00:02:16]

It was a nice layout then I would probably live in it.

Emma Nelson [00:02:19]
Looks like there's quite a bit of explaining to do. So Ben Adams, what is modular housing?

Ben Adams [00:02:24]
It's homes that are built in a factory. So rather than being built on a building site from scratch, they're built in a factory environment typically as modules that represent specific parts of the home and then they're brought to site and connected up to create the finished home.

Emma Nelson [00:02:39]
And Rich, how do you design and build a modular home differently from the way that you would do traditionally build a house?

Richard Hyams [00:02:44]
The functions inside the home remain the same. We all live in a very similar way, no matter how the house is built. However, when you are building modular housing, you need to take into account things like the size of vehicles delivering them, the road widths, how you get from the factory to the site. And therefore that puts limitations on how large a pieces you can build of that home. Therefore, you need to design the home in a way that it can be effectively broken down into smaller parts, like a living room, for example, or a bedroom and a bathroom.

Emma Nelson [00:03:16]
And Richard Brown from Centre for London, you have done a lot of research on what problems modular housing are supposed to solve. Why is it here now?

Richard Brown [00:03:26]
I think there are benefits all the way through. I think in environmental terms, there's less waste in terms of construction process. Working in a factory is a very different environment, it's safer. If you get a higher quality home, that can be more energy efficient. So there's benefits to the consumer, but also benefits to workers and benefits to the industry as a whole.

Emma Nelson [00:03:44]

Ben, your job at Arcadis didn't exist a few months ago, did it?

Ben Adams [00:03:48]
No, it didn't. So the role that I'm in now was created earlier this year and it was created because we can see that modular housing brings lots and lots of benefits to homeowners and to people who create homes. So we wanted to recognize that and really help to kind of drive that forward through creating the role that I'm in now.

Emma Nelson [00:04:07]
Jez, when you introduced people to the idea of modular homes in Bristol, what did they think?

Jez Sweetland [00:04:12]
When we popped up, last October, six modular homes on the waterfront and invited the public and politicians and the industry to come and see it, one of the things that was said over and over again by the public was that 'these look like normal homes'. I think for a lot of people there is an assumption that we're talking about inferior quality homes whereas of course actually the focus is we're moving the homes from being built in a field to being built in a factory.

Emma Nelson [00:04:36]
And as an architect, Rich, do you find people are getting excited by modular homes or are they still thinking 'I don't really trust this brand new way of doing things'?

Richard Hyams [00:04:47]
Those that don't know what it is are still needing to be taught in a way as to what benefits it can bring. I think that's pretty much where we are. I mean, I would make an analogy, if you look at a horse and cart as the old way of moving around, versus the modern motor vehicle, the old horse and cart is effectively the onsite constructed home, whereas the modern motor vehicle is the modular house, and I think that's how people should be thinking.

Emma Nelson [00:05:14]
What was it that made you decide to go into modular housing?

Richard Hyams [00:05:18]

As an architect, I've been involved in a lot of offsite construction. So office buildings are built like this and have been for many decades and is not even questioned. We build windows in Switzerland, we build steelworks in Sheffield and we bring it all to site in components and build it on site. No one's even questioned it. Yet when it comes to the home, it seems to be a jump that is too difficult to make. So that's why we've really focussed on how to transform this known technology into houses.

Richard Brown [00:05:45]
Yes. I mean, if you look at any other product you've, just mentioned cars, you wouldn't expect to build a car from scratch for someone to come into your front yard and actually start putting a car together. So people are used to buying well-designed products which are mass manufactured in almost every walk of life. It's just it hasn't quite broken through yet. And perhaps that's because the traditional house builders are used to doing things in a certain way. They have links with traditional construction trades, but that's going to be a big challenge in coming years because there's huge labour shortages, particularly in London and the south east in terms of traditional manufacturing and those could get worse after Brexit.

Emma Nelson [00:06:18]
Let's hear now from Harriet Harriss. She's Dean of the Pratt School of Architecture in New York, and she explains why she thinks modular housing is so popular now, hipster even!

Harriet Harriss [00:06:27]
We used to describe it really as prefab and in fact, I think that term carried with it a lot of baggage, an association with failing 1960s council towers in the UK and often a sense of urban alienation and crime. But modular is really the term that has reinvented prefabrication, despite the fact that it's the same principles and the same processes. So I think that when we think about modular, it sounds a little bit exotic a bit European even. And there's something of the sort of social utopianism attached to that phrase that I think has helped it address its image crisis.

Emma Nelson [00:07:07]
So in essence, Ben, it's prefab, but with a sexy European name.

Ben Adams [00:07:11]
No, I don't think that's true at all. I think it's high quality homes that are much more friendly to the planet.

Emma Nelson [00:07:19]
Is modular housing going to solve the housing crisis Richard?

Richard Brown [00:07:23]
Modular housing construction enables us to build faster, enables us to build better and enables us to build more. And that's important. Emma Nelson [00:07:29]
Ben, what about the issue for solving the housing crisis with you when you're dealing with your clients?

Ben Adams [00:07:33]
I don't think modular on its own will solve the housing crisis, but it will certainly help and it will also help with improving the quality of the homes that we build and how environmentally friendly they are.

Emma Nelson [00:07:43]
Are these homes are going to be more affordable, Rich?

Richard Hyams [00:07:46]
Yes, at scale, it will certainly become more affordable.

Emma Nelson [00:07:49]

They become slightly soulless, though. What's the risk of that?

Richard Hyams [00:07:52]
I don't think so. I mean, that's about design. I think that the role that we have to play in this as architects and designers is really critical. We see as a greater skill set required by the designers to actually make these buildings really attractive.

Richard Brown [00:08:05]
And one thing I would add on cost is that most people we spoke to in mainstream construction were saying it's a little bit more expensive. Now we're seeing the mainstream construction companies moving into this area. So I think this is emerging technology. It's already getting cheaper, getting competitive with traditional construction. I think it's got a long way to go still in that direction.

Emma Nelson [00:08:27]
You're listening to Long Story Short, the future cities podcast from Arcadis. We're talking modular housing today. And joining me in the studio are Ben Adams from Arcadis, Richard Hyams from AStudio Architects, Jez Sweetland from the Bristol Housing Festival, and Richard Brown from Centre for London. And a little later on in the programme, my panel will give their thoughts and hopes for the future of modular housing.

Emma Nelson [00:08:50]
Rich, your architecture practice is designing modular homes to help councils solve their housing crisis.

Richard Hyams [00:08:56]
So what we're trying to do is offer councils and public bodies that own land the ability to build the homes they need for the people that we know exist that need them. And that's a very different prospect. And that is all about scale. We know there needs to be 300,000 homes built a year and this is where modular can solve. And I think the trick is, as Jez said, is to shift the industry to a position where you can simply buy them.

Emma Nelson [00:09:22]

So we have the idea and we have the great design. But who is going to build our modular future? Well, let's head to the building world where reportedly only 12 percent of construction is done off site. So what is modular housing doing to change this?

Emma Nelson [00:09:36]
Rich, can we go back to you there? You were talking about the fact that what you're doing, and you're doing this is one council in London at the moment aren't you, you're offering the council the ability to come to you as a one stop shop. And how easy is it to do?

Richard Hyams [00:09:51]
It's been incredibly difficult. We're having to push down barriers all the time in order to enable this to happen.

Emma Nelson [00:09:57]
What are people objecting to?

Richard Hyams [00:09:59]
It's not that people are objecting to it, it's that there are no processes to allow a council to buy a product like a home. And the reason why is there is all of this legislation in place and processes that have been used over hundreds of years that have established a method of working. And what modular homes does, is it challenges that method of working. So what we've had to do is go in, rethink the model, and then as the barriers come, tried to work with them and brake them down. It's taken years in order to be able to get to a point where a council can then buy the product.

Emma Nelson [00:10:31]
Can you give me an example of that?

Richard Hyams [00:10:33]
Okay. A council works with a lot of public money. We all pay taxes, those taxes go into pots to build homes and do other things like, you know, take the rubbish away. In order to spend that money, there needs to be a process, and righly so, of value for money. The normal route is a competitive tender. Everybody gets an opportunity to offer their products. And then the council have a myriad of different solutions to then wade through. That takes time, takes money, it takes skills within the councils to do that and fundamentally is not getting homes built.

Richard Brown [00:11:04]
One of the areas for hope, I suppose, is that a lot of councils are starting to try to build more themselves. And for many councils, if they don't have a big construction team in-house, being able to buy something more or less off the shelf looks like a good way of getting more houses built. Others have been doing temporary accommodation for homeless people using modular construction because they're trying to do more themselves and are trying to use their land in a more intelligent way rather than just sell it off.

Ben Adams [00:11:27]
And we see that as well. We're doing work with a number of councils who are really keen to increase the amount of modular housing that they're building. Councils like Manchester who are actively looking at how they can help develop a manufacturing industry for building modular homes in and around Manchester.

Emma Nelson [00:11:44]
What about the basic issue of who is going to build these, who's skilled and whether actually our building force is up to this job?

Richard Brown [00:11:53]
I think part of this is about shifting from a set of skills which has tended to be, and I exaggerate slightly, about being a burly bloke who's able to shift heavy things, to being someone who's agile, able to deal with quite complex systems, a whole different range of skills. I previously worked on London's Olympic project and we saw that some of those buildings were put up using modular type systems. Very different skills, it was people absailing around, fitting different pieces of metal together in a very different way from traditional construction. So it opens up construction to a whole range of people who might have seen it as dirty, dull and pretty dangerous at least in the past.

Ben Adams [00:12:28]
I think it will make it a much more attractive career for the new generation coming forward. It's much more digital. There's much more use of computer design and computer aided manufacturing. You're doing it in a warm, clean factory environment. I just think it will help to attract people into the industry.

Emma Nelson [00:12:46]
What about when you're trying to build your new council homes in London, Rich?

Richard Hyams [00:12:51]
The government has a big part to play in this, because if you go up and down the country, you can walk down streets of Victorian houses that are practically identical in every way in every city. And yet people often say, isn't modular housing going to mean that we all live in the same types of homes? And yet it's the homes that most people in the country crave, which is the old Victorian house. Now that by its very nature has become a versatile and adaptable structure, it still works for today's modern living. People can adapt it, move around in it and work in different ways inside the house. So getting the design right and getting it scalable is actually one of the big answers. And that's why I think the government's got a big part to play in this, because if they imagine, you know, like the car industry, we've got a whole series of factories dotted around the country, some of which are now empty. And yet the skills around those factories exists and do exactly this thing, and you think, well, why aren't we thinking bigger and saying we should be now converting these factories into factories that now make homes instead of ones that historically made cars.

Richard Brown [00:13:56]
It's a field at the moment where there are so many different ideas, so many different models, so many different versions out there and how those can work together, whether one can have them working together as an open system rather than as this is product A it only works with product A, I think is quite a big challenge. Because we'd like to see more standardization and more ability of different systems to work together, but on the other hand, there is a lot of creativity in the system and we don't want the government perhaps stepping in and decreeing that this is the model of modular home that we should all be building.

Emma Nelson [00:14:23]
I'd like to go back to the issue of who is going to build these houses. Harriet Harris from the Pratt School of Architecture in New York sounds a rather interesting alarm for the downsides to making houses in a factory.

Harriet Harriss [00:14:37]

If you like, the dark side of modular housing is that with all of this emphasis on automation, there are labour market implications that mean that many of the construction workers who are currently involved in the production of traditional housing are likely to find their jobs rendered obsolete by modular housing. And of course, then the irony is that the very builders who would have built these kinds of homes and be the very candidates who could afford these kinds of homes, would be the least able to actually live in any of them because their roles would've been replaced by robots.

Emma Nelson [00:15:11]
Ben, from Arcadis, what would you say to that?

Ben Adams [00:15:14]
The construction industry right now does not have enough people to build the number of homes that we need. So it needs to tap into some other people to help them build the homes that we need. And that can be done by building them in a factory environment using a different set of people.

Richard Hyams [00:15:29]
I think we need to be a bit more kind of honest about whether we think the way we're currently building is the right way anyway. You hear all these reports about people not putting insulation into the building, and actually would you really want any more homes that way? I mean, I think this is an opportunity to actually build ,build of higher quality and really be demanding as a customer about what you want your home to be.

Jez Sweetland [00:15:51]
The debate that we're having isn't really actually just about whether it's modular or traditional build. What we need to grab hold of is the opportunity to look at the objectives of how we build homes and the quality of those homes that we build in the UK. I think the biggest concern that I would have isn't so much around the skills agenda, although I think that is a key part of it, it's actually about how we are ensuring that we have the right objectives for the quality of homes that we build. So the real purpose, of course, of how we build homes is how we create healthy and resilient communities.

Emma Nelson [00:16:22]
This is long story short, the future cities podcast from Arcadis. We're talking modular housing today. And joining me in the studio are Ben Adams from Arcadis, Richard Hyams from AStudio Architects, Jez Sweetland from the Bristol Housing Festival, and Richard Brown from Centre for London. So a well-built house helps with our quality of life. But will modular housing meet this need not just for the next 10 or 20 years, but for generations to come?

Emma Nelson [00:16:50]
Rich, are modular houses going to be as resilient, as solid and stay upright as long as those Victorian terraced houses you said earlier we all still want to live in?

Richard Hyams [00:17:01]
I think what is interesting in the manufacturing methods is that the quality control, the way it's built, the way it's monitors, it's performance level i.e. How much air it lets in and how leaky it is and how much power you need to put in it, are all streaks ahead of the traditional construction version.

Jez Sweetland [00:17:20]
The problem is we're not actually building any more Victorian homes, we're building a new build construction homes, and some of the surveys are saying that up to 70 percent of the public do not want to buy a new home because the level of trust in the quality of workmanship has gone down. But people are harking back to sort of old traditional methods, the actual Victorian homes built in the Victorian era. And that trust issue is key. And again, it comes back to the education piece that there is no reason some of these modular homes will last for any shorter period of time than the way we're building homes at the moment. They will need maintaining like homes do at the moment.

Richard Brown [00:17:52]
A Victorian home that you look at will have almost certainly had the roof replaced, will almost certainly have been reappointed, will have been changed in many ways. Different parts of a building age at different rates, being able to replace the things that age without demolishing and rebuilding the whole thing will be essential not just to making modular homes work, but also to avoiding the environmental impacts of destroying and rebuilding homes at a regular rate.

Richard Hyams [00:18:12]
If you were to say here's a car built in your front garden and here's a car built in a factory, which one you're going to prefer? No one is going to say, I want a car built in my front lawn. And I think that's first shift in perception we need.

Emma Nelson [00:18:25]
Ben, tell us about the financial pressures. There's a lot of people say that a lot of developers think about very little other than the bottom line. And the criticism that is levied against a lot of developers is that they are throwing up badly designed, badly manufactured housing at the moment. To what degree could the issue of modular housing actually make that worse?

Ben Adams [00:18:46]
In Japan, modular homes are seen as a premium product. They are not seen as being inferior to traditionally built houses. They're sought after. They're aspirational. I think for developers being able to provide homes to people that are much cheaper to heat is a real benefit. What we see is typically in a traditionally built home, heating costs might be £900 a year, in comparison to something in the region of three to four hundred pounds a year for a modular built home. I also think that the sustainability argument is going to become really important. There is much less waste involved in a modular approach than a traditional approach. And I think as we start to see the sustainability argument coming to the fore, we're really going to start to see the benefits of that modular approach.

Richard Hyams [00:19:33]
You can cut down three quarters of the journey to site. Can you imagine that in your neighbourhood where you've got a construction site opposite your house?

Richard Brown [00:19:39]
The number of people being bussed in from around the country to work on construction sites in London is insane. Wouldn't it be more sensible if those people were actually able to work in a better working environment near where they lived, where there is spare capacity in factories?

Emma Nelson [00:19:52]

Finally therefore for one big fix from each of you to end today's podcast from - something hopeful and achievable if possible, when it comes to making us have more trust, more faith and more ambition when it comes to modular housing. Jez, you go first.

Jez Sweetland [00:20:07]
The thing that I believe we need is more political courage and the ability to take risks and innovate.

Ben Adams [00:20:13]
I think it's about people having an open mind when they think about modular homes and to actually take the time, go visit one.

Richard Brown [00:20:19]
I think there's scope for a big public education programme looking at design competitions so you can actually start to see these start to become aspirational things.

Richard Hyams [00:20:30]
Solving the unaffordability of homes needs big thinking. And I think that's big government thinking. And we've got jobs, skills and homes shortage and this modular housing could solve all three if done well.

Emma Nelson [00:20:44]
That brings us to the end of today's show. Ben Adams, Jez Sweetland, Rich Hymes and Richard Brown, thank you all very much for joining me in the studio. And if you enjoyed that, then make sure you subscribe. You'll find fresh podcasts popping up every month, all at arcadis/com/uk, where there'll be lots of extras too all to do with the future of our cities.

Emma Nelson [00:21:04]
You've been with Long Story Short, the future cities podcast from Arcadis UK. I'm Emma Nelson. Goodbye. Thank you very much for listening.



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