Could modular housing solve London's housing crisis?

Artist's impression of Pocket's block at Juxon Street, London SE11. Image: Pocket Living.

 The phrase "modular housing" has recently been cropping up more frequently among those of us who hang out in housing circles. (You should come to our parties, they’re wild.) Two London developments – one private, one public – opened up to prying eyes recently, so it’s an opportune moment to take a closer look.

But first of all: what is modular housing?

Briefly, it’s housing that’s mainly constructed off-site, on a factory production line. Private developer Pocket Living makes its one- and two-bedroom flats – including fittings – in two weeks. The modules are then lowered into place to form buildings over around 30 days; then finishing work takes place, to make the resulting block look like a traditional apartment block.

Modular housing is quicker and cheaper to put together than standard construction methods. Pocket Living estimates its developments take about six months less to complete than old fashioned building methods. And doing so much work off-site significantly reduces dust levels and disruption for neighbours caused by noise and lorries. It’s also one way around the construction industry’s current skills shortage.

Pocket Living recently let press and representatives from local councils into a new development near the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. The quality is pretty impressive: it definitely doesn’t feel like stepping into a prefab.

The one bedroom flat on show was, shall we say, snug – but 38m2 is in line with space standards for single occupancy dwellings set out in the London Plan. (This is just as well; this may say more about me than the property, but I can’t imagine a relationship holding up without more space.) Prices for these flats start at £267,000; for this development, that's 30-35 per cent below market value.

A plan of a Pocket flat. Image: Pocket Living.

This prompts a number of thoughts. You don’t get much for your money these days; but it is at least near a zone 1 tube station (to be specific, Lambeth North); and modular housing must be a damn sight cheaper to build if it can be sold at these prices.

On the latter point, Pocket doesn’t have figures on costs compared to a traditional build, but says all its homes go on sale at least 20 per cent below the market rate. Speed undoubtedly helps to keep costs down, too. The development in Lambeth will take 12 months from land completion date to allocating homes to new residents.

New council housing?

A little further south, Lewisham Council is finishing off PLACE/Ladywell, a Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners-designed modular block of 24 homes, providing temporary accommodation for families on the council’s waiting list. The homes are situated on the grounds of a former leisure centre; the land would otherwise be in limbo, waiting for planning permission for a larger, permanent development.

The council says it will save £140,000 a year simply through not paying to house these families in low quality B&B accommodation. With income from rent and commercial units, it believes the project will pay for itself in ten years. The modules have a lifespan of 60 years and can be moved five times to other sites in that time period.

The space in these flats is actually 10 per cent larger than London Plan mandated standards and all have balconies. PLACE/Ladywell won two prizes at the recent New London Awards, including the prestigious Mayor’s Prize. It was also constructed even faster than Pocket Living’s Lambeth development: work began off-site in November 2015, and residents are on the verge of moving in.


Is modular housing the solution to the housing crisis? No, and nobody involved pretends that it is. But this lower cost, simple and fast construction model has great potential for adding to the mix when it comes to providing more affordable homes.

Even Pocket, a private company, has a model that’s committed to affordable housing. Costs are kept down by using the same modular home design, offering no car parking space and buying land using a GLA-supported loan.

To buy a Pocket home you must be a first time buyer living or working in the relevant borough, earning under £90,000 (the average Pocket buyer earns closer to £40,000) and not buying with cash. Pocket commits to selling its homes for at least 20 per cent below the open market rate.

Crucially, there are covenants on Pocket homes which control future affordability. Owners aren't allowed to rent them out and, when they come to sell on, new buyers are also subject to income and residence eligibility criteria. Pocket says this acts as a brake on the value of the homes, keeping them at around 20 per cent under the general market price. In other words, they're discounted (we can all argue about the definition of "affordable") forever.

"Modular housing has huge potential to speed up the delivery of new homes in London," says Tom Copley, a Labour member of the London Assembly. "If we are going to reach 50,000 new homes a year, developers, Housing Associations and local authorities should all be looking to deliver housing in this way."

Copley’s Assembly colleague, the Green party’s Sian Berry, has an idea about how councils could use the concept to minimise disruption when redeveloping estates. "As part of an alternative to demolition, modular homes should be of great interest to residents and councils alike when looking at ways to plan for more homes on existing council estates, without displacement and years of building works."

Modular housing certainly has potential to keep residents in their communities while blocks are being improved or rebuilt; it should certainly be looked at as a way to quickly infill unused space with permanent homes. Lewisham’s creative idea to unlock land for housing while it’s stuck in planning hell is also something that can be implemented elsewhere.

It’s not, in itself, a solution to the housing crisis. But it could be a solution.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.