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’s the constitutional status of the Isle of Man, then?

...what? Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

Amidst the tumult of Brexit negotiations, away from questions about the integrity of the Union itself being asked by wearied bureaucrats in Edinburgh, Belfast, Brussels and London, the constitutional uncertainty of our times has washed up on the shores of the Isle of Man. Now it threatens the slumber of policymakers in Douglas, too.

The ten-by-forty mile island in the Irish Sea is best known internationally for its annual TT motorcycle races and tax haven status. If you haven’t been you should go: the variety of scenery is breath taking, as are the economics. Lamborghinis emerge from the back of slate cottages, a seaside dwelling can set you back more than an Edinburgh duplex, and the gilet prevalence index is off the charts in certain localities.

The reason for the disconnect is the constitutional relationship between the Isle of Man and the UK. For centuries the island supplemented threadbare revenue streams from subsistence farming and fishing with a robust smuggling sector. The IoM government homepage clearly, maybe even proudly, states that it has never been part of the UK: in the 1700s plans to buy it out and make it part of England were shelved after local unrest, while the current arrangement of Home Rule dates to the early 1800s.

Today the IoM government is based in Douglas, the island’s largest town. Its funding comes through a revenue sharing agreement, the “common purse”, with tax gathered locally on behalf of London and returned to the island according to an unpublicised formula. The agreement has been a source of contention for about as long as it’s existed, but ire has grown proportionally with the island’s pre-eminence as a tax haven. Its detractors point out that the UK consistently gives back to the IoM government more than it gathers, effectively subsidising the island’s status as a tax haven; while its supporters are wealthy.

A map of the Isle of Man. Image: Eric Gaba/Wikimedia Commons.

In a world gripped by economic injustice, the IoM drives social change with a programme of support to welcome the huddled masses of oligarchs yearning for freedom from autocratic tax regimes. Income tax tops out at 20 per cent but, fear not, it’s capped at £150,000. Corporation tax is nil, until your firm earns £500,000 a year; then it has to pay 10 per cent on everything over that. For mega-wealthy émigrés forced to flee odious obligations like capital gains, inheritance or wealth tax, there are opportunities to invest in local property, to get back on your feet: proceeds are taxed at 20 per cent.

The Isle of Man enjoys the same constitutional status as the Channel Islands: the UK handles its accountancy and defence, but aside from the constant vigilance required to keep Dublin at bay the only international hassle comes from Brexit. In the same way as the IoM has never been part of the UK, it’s never been part of the EU – it enjoys all the benefits (or unconscionable infringements) of membership by virtue of a legal protocol which doesn’t bestow membership. Crucially, the IoM doesn’t have any representation with the EU – it can’t, being the kind of Schrödinger jurisdiction which is neither part of the UK nor its own recognised area.


That distinction brings other problems. Regardless of how Brexit pans out, the EU has shown signs of going to war on tax avoidance – a rare political argument which unites populists and progressives. The EU now maintains lists of high risk money-laundering and tax compliance jurisdictions, and the IoM’s prominence in the international sector was part of the reason some MEPs have pushed for including the UK as a whole.

The IoM experiences the paradox of autonomy without representation. Its relationship with the UK has often been hamstrung, too, such as in 2009 when the Treasury slashed common purse funding in an attempt to nudge Douglas away from its tax avoidance platform.

Domestically, the distance between the plutocracy and everyday islanders is stark. Most people on the island are not wealthy: they rely on public services and work jobs like anywhere else. After the IoM’s funding was cut by London at the height of the financial crisis, lower and middle income earners were worst hit. Now the island has to maintain a favourable tax code for plutocrats while supporting public services used by the people who need them. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and likely to become more so if the EU pursues its anti-tax avoidance agenda post-Brexit.

Simon Jones is a writer based in Glasgow.