Modular housing education needed

14 December 2016

The UK Chancellor gave his autumn statement on November 23. One of the issues he addressed was housing. “The challenge of delivering housing where it is not affordable is not a new one. But this is an urgent challenge.” He announced a £2.3bn Infrastructure Fund for up to 100,000 new homes. London will get £3.15bn for affordable homes. In the US, housing construction starts are at last beginning to increase – see our report on the EPF symposium on page 48. As is well known, construction is the main driver for demand for the wood based panel industry.

Less attention was given to another UK government announcement in October: that it sees modular construction as a way to accelerate housebuilding. Also known as pre-fabricated or off-site construction, it “could provide a huge opportunity to increase housing supply,” said Gavin Barwell, housing minister. More than 100,000 new prefabs are hoped for by 2020.

Joined-up government should surely put these two pieces of policy together. It would make what would be a welcome message. Traditional housing construction is almost laughably inefficient. Pouring concrete then piling brick upon brick; adding carpentry, roofing, plumbing, glazing and electrics; then painting and decorating and making good.... it is hugely demanding of craft skills, which are scarce and likely to get scarcer. It is hugely expensive, it is weather-dependent, it takes a ridiculous amount of time and site management and a ridiculous amount of non-renewable resources to complete a house. Any other industry that relied on such old-fashioned methods would have been bankrupt long ago. Industry 4.0 it is not.

Traditional houses use their proportion of wood based panels. Modular construction has the potential to use a very much higher proportion of panels to other material in each unit built. Technical advances, in such areas as stability and weather-resistance, can only increase this.

What is true of Britain is true of the rest of the world also. Quality modular housing would be a sensible advance for cities and suburbs everywhere. It could also affordably transform favelas and shanty-towns into good places to live.

The main problem is resistance to change. Architects and planners are not used to the concept; mortgage lenders are reluctant to lend on pre-fabs. A major educational effort is needed. The panel industry should do all that it can to reach out to all three groups. The industry, and society, would benefit.