We can have cheap and good quality homes – we just need Part-Fab

The old days: school children help build a pre-fab house in Watford, Hertfordshire, in 1946. Image: Getty.

Solutions to the housing crisis often boil down to one of two options – a mass building programmes that deliver affordable homes at scale; or a neighbourhood planning revolution that allows communities to drive development in their area.

It’s not really surprising that we end up at an impasse – the former will deliver poor quality, identikit homes and unsustainable communities; the latter will slow development and deliver more expensive homes.

But how can we get new homes that are cheap, good quality and personalised? The answer is Part-Fab.

The recent push by politicians and policy-makers towards self- and custom build as a means of improving housing design, ownership and delivery is welcome, but it's not enough. Financing for self-build is still difficult to access for most; and many homebuyers simply don’t want to take on the perceived additional risks and go through the (lengthy) process of designing and building their own homes from scratch.

Yet there is a strong case for an approach to housing design that allows people to shape their own homes and that, crucially, can be delivered at scale. The benefits of self-build can largely be realised through what can best be described as Part-Fab – part-finished, modular builds that allow homeowners to shape their own homes and, in doing so, generate a greater sense of place than many current housing developments achieve.

A part-fab home, standing part-fabbed. Image: Elemental.

The idea of part-fabrication comes from an unlikely source: post-disaster zones. The concept provides a means of providing cheap, easy to construct housing to replace those lost in earthquakes and flooding. Architects design a small living unit based on residents' current needs, and leave each family to expand their quarters over time. You can add an extra bedroom or a new living room, or determine your own external cladding. Allowing residents to organically shape design is an effective way of quickly restoring a sense of place and belonging that natural disasters so devastatingly take away.

In a different way, Britain faces these challenges in meeting our severe housing shortage. We need more homes, built quicker; but we also need a renewed focus on the quality of design and on the importance of community and place-making.
A new drive on Part-Fab developments would benefit everyone – buyers get cheaper homes that better meet their needs, developers get shorter completion times and save money on the build, and communities get the visual benefits of an organic, people-centred approach to design and housing. No longer would new suburban development be characterised by identikit estates of box homes.

The Part-Fab approach should generate significant savings in build costs. But despite the prospect of lower house prices, it may also need to be accompanied by a formal mechanism of support – it’s easy to imagine hard-pushed buyers foregoing completion of properties to save money.

It should also be locally-led. As it would be a new type of property design, local authorities could run an open tender to invite architects to pitch innovative ideas for developments that meet the specific needs of localities: this happened with the scheme in Constitución, Chile. The government’s drive to unlock public sector land is an opportunity for a forward-looking city to introduce a pilot Part-Fab scheme in this way.

Part-Fab development means we don’t have to see affordability, quality and place-making as a trade-off – we just need new thinking and ambition from those in local and national government. 

Edward Douglas is a senior policy and projects officer at think tank Respublica.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.