Prefabrication is the only way Britain can hit its housing targets – and that’s okay

Prefab housing under construction at PLACE Ladywell, south east London. Image: Roger Stirk Harbour & Partners.

In 1971 the architect and housing writer Martin Pawley was invited to Chile by President Salvador Allende, to advise the socialist government on increasing the delivery of low-cost housing. Pawley believed that a command economy could deliver the sort of industrial focus to construction that the UK had struggled with. He located a redundant Renault van factory, and designed homes that could be made out of pressed steel panels.

The project was delayed, as the Chileans discovered that housing delivery was more complex than churning out cars. Then Allende died in a CIA-backed coup d’etat, and the experiment was shut down.

Pawley was part of a generation of architects who believed that the future of construction lay in the factory. His views were shared by others who are now leaders of the profession like Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Nicholas Grimshaw and Michael Hopkins. But apart from a few modular hotel rooms, bathroom pods and poorly-designed classrooms, construction has remained stubbornly out in the open air instead of in the factory.

Until now.

Much of the credit for a change of heart at Westminster and City Hall must go to the hard-hitting report Modernise or Die by Mark Farmer, commissioned by the government’s Construction Leadership Council and published in 2016. Farmer highlighted the problems that will be created by Brexit: 27 per cent of London’s construction workforce comes from the EU; on some major sites that rises to over 50 per cent. In skilled areas, like office fit outs, British workers may only make up 10 per cent of the workforce. Farmer showed how, even without Brexit, the UK-born workforce was getting older and how difficult it is to recruit younger workers into the industry.

For a government promising to deliver 1m new homes by 2020 and another 500,000 two years later, this was not good news. The Department of Communities & Local Government was renamed the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, and ministers embraced offsite manufacturing as a drowning sailor would a passing life raft.

The London Assembly also got in on the act by publishing Designed, sealed, delivered: the contribution of offsite manufactured homes to solving London’s housing crisis in August 2017. This urged the mayor to adopt a ‘Manufactured Housing Design Code’ that would generate a ‘component standardisation “catalogue” approach that can then be configured in multiple combinations as part of a project-specific design response’.

The Mayoral Housing Strategy (2018) encourages greater “precision manufacturing” to increase the speed of delivery. This is supposed to have the additional benefit of improving quality control of the end product while reducing the impact of the construction process and related transportation issues.

Inside PLACE Ladywell. Image: Roger Stirk Harbour & Partners. 

Deputy Mayor for Housing James Murray has little choice but to embrace the new technologies. He has a target of 65,000 homes per annum, but Farmer reckons that we are already at almost ‘peak build’ – that the industry just cannot currently deliver more than 45,000 homes a year without a radical overhaul of its methods of construction.

The fact that the deputy mayor uses different terminology to everyone else doesn’t help. ‘Precision manufacturing’ is just one of a myriad of descriptions – there’s also Industrialised Building Systems, Modular Construction, Modern Methods of Construction (or MMC), Offsite Construction and Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA), with lots of subset like volumetric, open panel systems, closed panel systems and component assembly.


For New London Architecture’s research and exhibition on the subject we decided to use the term ‘Factory-Made Housing’ – but with hindsight, I wish we’d called it ‘Prefabrication’. That’s what it is and I am suspicious of euphemisms. To politicians, prefab is a toxic word recalling memories of the failure of post-war estates. At a recent NLA conference, James Murray said: “There should be a swear box for anyone who uses that word!”

In the United States, perhaps unaffected by our post-war experiences, prefabs are popular. Facebook is building 1500 prefab units for workers next to their Menlo Park HQ, Amazon is developing Alexa-enabled prefabs and Google are seeking manufacturers for prefabs to house their workers on a new campus in San Jose.

According to Mark Farmer, the evolution of technology will “change the construction industry forever”. The connection between tech and construction that is happening on the West Coast will inevitably disrupt the traditional industry, breaking down traditional professional barriers and creating vertically integrated supply chains. An example of the coming disruptors is Katerra which has raised over $1bn to fund a building technology that links standardisation with customisation.

Prefabrication will bring in its wake radical changes to the antiquated construction industry. The end of professional silos and greater collaboration have long been called for in the Latham Report of 1994, the Egan Report of 1998 and the Edge Report of 2014. But it looks like Mark Farmer with a bit of help from Brexit – as well as the Grenfell inquiry – might actually make it happen.

Peter Murray is chairman of New London Architecture.

NLA recently published a report, and is currently hosting an exhibition, on this topic.

 
 
 
 

How getting a dog made me hate London less

A dog called Martha. Image: Jamie Ross.

I never have been anything but a staunch hater of London. Growing up in what a friend from Chicago called “a forest reserve”, my entire life has been split between a suburban one in a leafy town near Dayton, Ohio and an urban one, spent in stupidly pretty, and still fairly leafy, Edinburgh. I moved to London for a hot second in 2016, hated my job as well as my surroundings, and left, pretty much immediately.

And then, almost two years later, I was offered my current role at the New Statesman, and I packed up my shit and dragged my reluctant boyfriend with me to do it all over again. I sort of enjoyed my summer in London – but I felt strongly that living in the city would never feel like anything other than a necessary evil.

I live in – this is your moment to laugh and call me a posh prick – Notting Hill. It’s a decent location, has more trees and parks than other parts of the city, and, most importantly, is the closest I could get to replicating my old neighbourhood of Stockbridge in Edinburgh, which I loved dearly. But even this isn’t enough to entirely counteract the fact my physical surroundings, on my commute to the office by the Temple, made me feel constantly claustrophobic and stressed. London is cold and unfriendly, compared to many parts of this country, and it is filthy – not in a snobby, prissy, precious fuckhead way, but in a “My life expectancy has probably dropped by three years breathing in this polluted air and stepping on broken glass” way. For my first few months in London, in the middle of the heat wave, walking the streets was like walking through an endless sludge: this was not a city I liked nor one I, really, wanted to live in.

Until I got a puppy.

The one condition my boyfriend imposed when he agreed to trudge down to London with me was that we find a flat where our letting agreement said that we could have dog. So, three months after our move, we got Martha, a twelve-week-old black cockapoo.

Getting her changed our lives in a lot of ways. It’s made it impossible for us to leave the house without having a human being on attendance to watch her like a hawk. It means I now have to wake up at 6:45am every day, weekends included, so that she can take a shit. She has improved our lives remarkably - I mean, we have a living floof doing sweet and adorable shit in our house – but she has changed things a lot.

And the thing I least expected this goddam dog to change has been the way has made me feel more integrated into this godforsaken city: she’s made me appreciate London, even with its downsides.

Actually, something else happened, without which I don’t think my point of view would have changed. Almost immediately after getting Martha – and I mean, like, within hours – I contracted a disgusting cold. The day after that cold cleared up, I got violent conjunctivitis, like the disgusting seven-year-old I am, which took a week to get over.

These two illnesses, combined, lasted around two weeks, so I was trapped at home for roughly seven days of the ten I would normally have been at work. That meant I was around to relieve the puppy burden from my home-working boyfriend.

I was tasked with dragging my puss-filled eyes out to let our dog have a run around, and to get her to piss every couple of hours. This new responsibility forced me to explore the neighbourhood that, for the three months previous, I had generally ignored. What I thought was the worst timing known to man was, not to exaggerate, life-changing. I’m not sure I would have come to this realisation about my new home had it not happened.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Another great day at the park! Pic by fellow small creature @esther.dominy.

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

Happy City by Charles Montgomery is a book all about how urban planning can make or break our wellbeing – what commutes, cars, bikes, and greenspace do to our mental health. One portion of the book is spent debunking the idea that the sheer amount of greenspace in an area is what makes us happy. Montgomery argues that it’s actually the regularity of greenspace that makes a real difference – it’s not just how much grass and trees there is in the city you live in, but how often you get to see it.


Pre-Martha, my exposure to grass amounted to the occasional lunch in a garden and a visit to Hyde Park once or twice a month. But within a matter of days of getting a dog, I learned that I had not one, not two, not three, but five (five!) piss locations within five (again: five!) minutes of my house. Some were suitable for little more than the aforementioned – but others gave her enough room to run after sticks, leaves, tennis balls, and, her favourite, other dogs, so that she’d be pleasantly exhausted for the rest of the day. What I originally thought was just an expanse of buildings and pavement stretching from my flat to Hyde Park was actually filled with pockets of green spaces that made this trash-laden hell-hole feel a lot less oppressive.

Spending time at parks where other dogs also go to piss meant I started to make relationships with other dog-owners too. For the first time in any place I’ve lived in outside of my home town, I actually started to meet my neighbours, and learn about things that were happening in my neighbourhood, that I would never otherwise never known about. I now know Tiggy, Rex, Bubba, and Charlie, as well as their respective owners. I also know about good pubs, family-run restaurants, and free events that are far better than the deeply average, pretentious brunch place recommended to me by The Culture Trip. My neighbourhood has feeling like a dead space between Tesco, my bus stop, and the tube, to a place I can see as a respite from the rest of this stressful city, full of people I know and new places I’d have otherwise not thought twice about.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Me and some new friends from the other day! Hoping for some more social time this weekend 

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

And taking her out at the same time every day, around the 7am mark, means we then almost always run into the same people. A very sweet kid walks to school around the same time and always smiles at her. We see the same woman with her dog, who always greets Martha with aggressive barking, ultimately ending in a congenial ass sniff. We let her jump up at the incredibly patient builders doing construction on a building at the end of our street.

This morning ritual, seeing my neighbourhood when it’s not rammed with tourists but is quiet and reserved for people who live or work nearby, has become a way to decompress at the start of every day. And as a woman, being up and out when it’s often dark, but seeing people I now recognise, means my neighbourhood has become less intimidating. For the first time in London, I feel safe and comfortable even late at night.

Beyond the confines of my neighbourhood, Martha has made me see London, not for what it does for me, but for what it provides for her. Never have I ever had such an appreciation for London’s public transport system than when I got my dog, who wears a big stupid grin at all times when riding the bus. (Her internal monologue honestly appears to be an endless loop of, “ALL OF THIS STUFF WOW MORE STUFF OH GOD REALLY COULD THERE ACTUALLY BE MORE STUFF HELLO EVERYONE HI OH HI WOULD YOU LIKE TO PET MY HEAD?”)

Even long journeys are now a delight, because watching your puppy be amazed, fascinated, and happy at all times, eventually passing out from exhaustion at all the energy expended, is incredibly heart-warming. Faced from the bus, London, even at its busiest, feels far better with my dog than on my own: her pure, unadulterated excitement is enough to make holding a wild animal on a packed motor vehicle worthwhile.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

dad taught me love • dad taught me patience • dad taught me pain

A post shared by Martha The Dog (@heythereitsmartha) on

I’m almost certain I will never love London. I don’t think I will ever feel charmed enough by the charming parts to outweigh the onslaught of the, often, literal shit it brings with it. Not everything about having a dog in London is great, of course: there is trash everywhere, trash I used to pass nonchalantly but now have to heave my dog away from in case she eats a used condom or even another dog’s shit. And, obviously, living in a city is probably never great for an animal compared to, say, a suburb or the countryside.

But through my dog I’ve learned what’s actually around me, not just what I narrowly perceive on my begrudging walk to work. Doing that has made London feel a lot less like my own personal hell. Slowly, Martha is making London like some kind of twisted, imperfect, home for me.

Sarah Manavis is the digital culture and tech writer at the New Statesman. She tweets as @sarahmanavis.

Martha Ross-Manavis is small and cute dog. You can follow her on Instagram at @heythereitsmartha.