UK towns and cities are in desperate need of more and better housing for all age groups. The housing crisis is not new, so where do any solutions lie? Construction industry productivity is only increasing at 0.4% p.a. compared to manufacturing at 3.2% p.a. (Office for National Statistics). Most building projects are too bespoke and traditional construction methods too slow. Cost, time and quality are impacted by site conditions, weather and skill shortages.
For years, the concept of off-site modular construction has been seen as a potential panacea. It’s back in the news again. The principle is indeed seductive. In essence, modular construction is a factory finished box, a bit like a porta cabin for living in. Put several together to make a flat or stack them on top of each other to make a house. They have a factory built, finished interior that can have any type of external cladding to suit the setting or planning context. The module becomes the building block, a bit like overgrown Lego.
Being a factory controlled process, standardisation and repetition is a necessity. Reduced wastage of material and recycling are proven benefits. Off-site factory production requires substantial up-front investment, but holds the potential for greater application of R&D alongside computer controlled process which construction urgently needs. Conventional construction is sadly lacking in sufficient R&D. The negative side has been the cost of transport and limitation on the width of ‘Pods’ which are limited to c.3.3metres without special load restrictions or, even more expensive, police escort for wide vehicles. The other limitation has been the number of modules that can be stacked on top of each other. This is now about to change.
In Croydon, less than half an hour by train from Central London, work is about to start on the two tallest residential modular towers in the World. At 38 and 44 storeys high, they represent a giant leap forward. The modules are being built in Bedford, not Germany, China or Japan. The latter leads the World in pre-fabricated construction and its housing programme delivers over one million homes each year. Much of the very best historic urban residential architecture benefits from highly evolved plan forms that were simply repeated to become terraces and crescents. Put these building blocks together around a green space and a ‘Square’ is formed; two terraces facing each other (in good proportion) and a street is created. It’s not rocket science.
London, Bath, York and many others are world famous for their quality of urban ‘place’ and can be surprisingly high density. The essence of this issue, is that the building ‘brick’, ie. the ‘house’, is repetitive and hence is capable and appropriate for factory production. The important ingredients being the variety and detail of the exterior cladding and the refined evolution of the inside to suit the lifestyles of our time. The long term strengths of the Georgian townhouse have been that it evolved at a range of different sizes (the original Belgravia masterplan contained properties ranging from ambassadorial mansions to workers’ cottages) and crucially, has proved adaptable over time. Other more recent eras of architecture hold exemplar models of excellent house and flat plans that all involved could and should learn from.
Modular construction design can and must refine and evolve enjoyable flat and house plans if it is to be a major part of the housing solution. Architects must create great compositions and elegant cladding options to equal their historic peers. Engineering and the design of pods has made substantial advances in the last few years. Research should aim to enhance adaptability, a current flaw to longevity. If these things advancetogether, then modular construction should make an important contribution to the housing problem. Perhaps a creative government actually tackling the housing crisis might encourage investment in the up-front factory investment costs?
Alarmingly, nine out of ten worldwide construction projects run over budget, most often because of time delays. It will be interesting to see if the Croydon towers are built in half the time and on budget as targeted. Flat-pack construction, like Ikea furniture, does have a place in speeding up build times. SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) are already being widely used especially in timber frame construction. By itself, flat-pack is currently used mostly for one-off houses. Its benefit over modular is ease and cost of transport, but it is still dependent, albeit less, on erection time and greater finishing on site.
The use of computers in design is catching up with other manufacturing sectors, but it still has a long way to go in actual construction. REVIT, a Building Information Modelling (BIM) software is now being used by many design firms as an interactive design tool. In creating a 3-dimensional model of a building design, it enables architects, structural and services engineers to construct a fullsize computer model of a project. Hence resolving many construction complexities before they become a problem on site. In Japan such systems are more greatly integrated with product selection data,thus making the whole process more efficient, faster and defect free. The quality and speed of building in Japan makes the UK look decades behind.
The medium of the art of architecture is space. The art of communicating the idea is through drawing. As architect’s work becomes increasingly computer based, the art of hand drawing is being lost. Advances in architectural software technology are essential to progress and improved productivity in construction. At the same time, there is a danger of the computer de-humanising architecture and hence, the spaces and places in which we all live. Many young qualified architects are amazingly talented at working with this developing software. The counter to this is that many of them can only draw on the computer. Some firms of architects are now holding life drawing classes to redress this unfortunate reality. Hand drawing connects eye, brain and pencil to paper and teaches one to observe, investigate and see. Seeing enables the brain to imagine and to create. If an architect can see better, then perhaps he or she may just imagine and create better spaces and places for our expanding cities.