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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.