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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just 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.”