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Modular construction can make a real difference if social landlords embrace its potential

Modular construction methods have come a long way since the post-war heyday of prefabrication, but perceptions still have some catching up to do, argues Neil Butters. Modern techniques offer a good fit for social landlords – and can make a real contribution to solving the housing crisis

 

THINK about modular construction and for a good number of us it conjures up images of flimsy prefab housing and hut-like creaky school classrooms.

It served a purpose in the post-war years – and for a good deal longer in many cases. Easy to assemble and cheap to construct, it was the ideal solution for the country’s acute housing shortage.

Over 70 years later we’re in the midst of another housing crisis and modular, offsite construction is back on the agenda. While perceptions may not have changed much, it’s a very different animal now.

Together with colleagues at Procurement for Housing (PfH) I’ve been looking into whether modular homes could offer solutions for the social housing sector as it plays a growing role in increasing supply.

We visited one company in the West Midlands to get a closer look at modern day ‘prefabs’ and see for ourselves just how far removed they are from their predecessors.

To say we were surprised by the level of quality would be an understatement.

Frankly, the model we walked around was considerably better than some brick built housing developments. We even did the ‘bounce test’; a colleague went upstairs and jumped up and down on the floor to see how sturdy it felt. It was barely noticeable and passed with flying colours.

The conclusion? Show people a real life example and that stigma will soon ebb away.

There are lots of reasons why modular and social landlords represent a good fit.

The speed of assembly – 12 weeks compared with nine months for traditional construction – is clearly a big plus point. Getting homes in place quicker means less disruption to existing tenants and the local environment, and payback in terms of rent will come much sooner.

Modular offers greater flexibility both in the way it can be erected in the short-term to serve as temporary accommodation, and reconfigured easily at a later date as residents’ needs change over time.

The issue of housing supply has been a major issue for all parties during the general election campaign and this could be one way for landlords to seize the initiative. It will form part of discussions about the future of social housing during PfH Live at the Housing 2017 conference on 27-29 June.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of modular from a social housing sector point of view is the potential for connecting it with broader social and economic objectives.

By partnering with existing modular producers, housing associations could build their own homes and create training and employment opportunities in the process. It particularly lends itself to landlords with direct labour organisations (DLOs).

This collaboration would help to solve one of the modular industry’s major barriers. When built in small numbers, modular costs around the same as traditional build, albeit with the added financial benefits outlined above.

But those costs per unit will fall if production is scaled up. Coupled with the volumes required by housing associations – and much greater sophistication in the procurement process – it becomes a much more attractive proposition.

Modular can only ever be part of the solution to our housing crisis but it presents a chance to in-source construction and put it back into the hands of the social housing sector so that it’s not reliant on national builders and the vagaries of the market.

One way forward might be the creation of regional hubs – landlords coming together to build modular housing at scale. They can create an order book between them – it makes sense for them and reduces risk.

It’s all about finding those housing associations that are keen to lead and innovate rather than looking for the fast followers. PfH is keen to talk with landlords who can see the potential of modular.

One of the major issues landlords face is acquiring housing land in the first place, as much of it is in the hands of developers and any development is likely to be tied into a joint venture with them.

Larger housing associations such as L&Q have been able to develop their own vertical supply chains and have created land acquisition and development companies.

But for the small and medium sized landlords perhaps the key in the meantime is to aggregate demand around the smaller sites that they do have.

The biggest challenge we face is securing commitment from the social housing sector to embrace modular. There are solutions out there waiting to be developed and in most cases it will require aggregated demand to make it worthwhile.

I think that’s all it will take for it to become a proven model in the sector. It won’t replace traditional build but can support efforts to meet housing demand.

 

Neil Butters is head of procurement at Procurement for Housing (PfH)

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