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.

 
 
 
 

What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.