Building homes for the future

Although the February 2017 white paper Fixing our broken housing market did not ring-fence any funds specifically for prefabricated housing, the comments leading up to the paper certainly suggested plans for more than 100,000 modular homes by 2020. Prefabs have improved greatly since the much-maligned post-war stock, and while some of these – which were built with a 10-year lifespan in mind – still stand, their functionality and lack of style a testament to the needs of the time rather than the public’s love of them.

Fast forward 60-70 years, and another housing crisis is in full swing, not because of the destruction of war, but due to a growing population and the failure to replace sold-off council stock over the past decades. Add to that greater numbers of students living away from the family home, as well as the increasing cost of housing relative to average incomes, and government estimates show that we need to build at least 225,000 homes per year to keep up with population growth and start to tackle years of undersupply, and this needs to be done as economically as possible. As for the public perception of prefabs, while they used to be a means to an end, things are different now, and modern modules are attractive and versatile rather than utilitarian and bleak. Production line precision means prefabricated homes are more airtight, which improves their energy efficiency, and highly customisable.

On the supply side, there are numerous benefits:

  • There is a growing skills shortage in the UK construction sector, and this may be worsened by Brexit and any resulting restriction on the flow of European labour, which accounts for around 10% of the workforce. Offsite construction is more efficient in labour, given the industrial setting in which modules are manufactured.
  • Offsite construction is also more efficient in materials, with less wastage than on a traditional building site.
  • While timeframes are always dependent on the project, a rule of thumb is that offsite-built developments can be completed in about half the time of traditional construction, as the modules can be manufactured while the foundations are being laid.
  • Additional benefits cited are fewer construction accidents, and more consistent quality of build.

Given the current shortage of offsite/prefab manufacturing in the UK, in order to build at least 100,000 homes over the course of just a few years, most of the modules and other components will probably need to be imported from abroad, perhaps from Sweden, where a majority of detached houses are prefabricated, and even apartment blocks are manufactured as modules and pieced together onsite. Prefabricated housing is also commonplace in Germany and Austria, and manufacturing of modules is prevalent in the Baltics. Carrying finished modules as RORO cargo, and/or unassembled packs in containers or trucks would be the most logical course of action.

Assuming most of the supply will be coming from the Continent – at least in the short- to medium-term – UK ports are going to need to be ready to handle modules/packs over the quayside and store them, whether they arrive as fully built units or flat packs to be built off- or onsite. Even if some manufacturing does take place in the UK, materials such as panels, and kitchen or bathroom capsules may still need to be imported in large quantities. And because of the regional spread – since modular homes will be built in, e.g. several city centres rather than across just one region – the supply chain will need multiple ports close to population centres, to reach the destinations most efficiently and with the least impact on national roads.

In the longer term, who knows? If the incumbents fail to keep pace with more innovative approaches to construction, we could see a new entrant disrupt and radically rewrite the way the construction industry operates.

Blog by Group Market and Customer Insights Manager, Elizabeth McPhillips.

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