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.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.