It is generally agreed that the UK’s housebuilding sector has been very slow to innovate. We still build homes using labour-intensive technologies of bricks and mortar, while innovation in other sectors has been characterised by rapid and radical change.
But with demand for new housing high, and supply low, traditional housebuilders have had little reason to do things differently while barriers to entry remain high. You can’t come up with a clever app to revolutionise housebuilding or do away with land, construction and planning challenges.
Innovation is needed across the housing cycle, but innovations in housing construction and manufacturing could create a real step-change in the speed, quality and quantity of houses being built in the capital.
As the UK’s housing crisis deepens and as the supply of new homes fails to respond to demand, architects, engineers and investors have been working together on a new generation of manufactured homes. These are built offsite using precision manufacturing techniques and are assembled onsite in a matter of months, if not weeks.
This innovation has been driven by constraints such as the shortage, and cost, of traditional contractors. Pocket, a developer specialising in micro-homes, embraced modular construction a few years ago to bring down costs; in May it completed Europe’s tallest residential modular tower in Wandsworth. Each flat was built and fitted offsite, then craned into place at the rate of one storey per day. Earlier this year, across the Channel in Nantes, the Yhnova house was 3D-printed in a matter of days – a world first.
Pre-fab is not new idea. Crystal Palace, the world’s first large-scale prefabricated building was built in 1851 from cast iron and glass. But the trouble is that pre-fab has gone out of fashion. Too often it conjures visions of concrete towers, containers or US-style mobile homes.
But there are examples from around the world which challenge this stereotype. And attitudes towards prefab homes are different in other countries: in Sweden, 84 per cent of detached homes are prefabricated.
At the moment, only seven per cent of all construction output in the UK is done offsite. The Mayor’s Innovation Fund has recognised this by offering support for community-led housing, for the development of offsite and precision manufacturing of homes, and for new ideas to house homeless people – but there is a long way to go to promote innovation across the industry and scale it up.
Right now, prefab needs a makeover. We need to challenge misconceptions, celebrate good design and show case new ideas. A London Housing Expo – an idea put forward by design studio HTA – could showcase the experiments bubbling up in London and abroad, as well as drive their application in the city. Like the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, these inventions could bring a sense of excitement, garner public interest, and create more innovation in the process.
Victoria Pinoncely is research manager at the Centre for London.