As companies across the United States are starting to invest in or develop ways to benefit from modular construction, the UK's advances can be used as a best practices. The country has been using and advancing both the process and the design.
What is modular housing?
New houses or blocks of flats that are largely constructed off-site in sections (or “modules”) and then put together quickly on-site. For many people, the obvious association will be with prefabricated – “prefab” – housing that helped meet Britain’s emergency shortage of about 200,000 homes after World War II. But it’s an association that modular builders understandably get sniffy about. Prefab houses were low-quality and unattractive. Modular homes, their proponents say, are the opposite: modern, energy-efficient and with cutting-edge design. According to Nicky Gavron, the former deputy mayor of London and long-term advocate for this way of building, today’s modular homes are “precision-engineered, digitally designed and eco-efficient”, making for affordable homes and slashed energy bills. But while they may be light years away from rickety old prefabs, they could – like their forerunners – have a crucial role to play in tackling today’s housing crisis.
What role could they play?
Boosting supply quickly and improving the astonishingly low productivity in the sector. Even the prime minister recently conceded that the UK housing market is “broken” and in need of fixing. What that fixing will involve is, in some estimates, building about 300,000 homes a year to keep pace with demand, including around 100,000 low-cost “affordable” homes. At current rates, that looks all-but impossible, but modular could give it a boost. Last year, about 15,000 modular units were built in the UK, but the government wants that to balloon to 100,000 by 2020. “The construction industry is one of the last to embrace modernisation,” Mark Farmer, head of Cast Consultancy and adviser to the UK government on its construction strategy, recently told the Financial Times. “While we’re all using smartphones, construction is still pretty much the same as it was during Roman times.” The sector is surely ready for its “Uber moment”, or disruption by new technologies that will produce radical change and efficiencies.
What are the advantages of modular?
Speed, efficiency, productivity and quality. When you build a house from scratch on a site, you can’t build the walls until you have dug and set the foundations. You can’t work on the roof until you’ve built the walls, and you can’t start fixing the electrics and plumbing and so on until you’ve got a watertight house. With modular, you can prepare the site and make the foundations at the same time as doing much of the rest off-site in the factory. There’s no stop-starting due to bad weather or waiting for deliveries. It’s vastly more controlled, efficient and quick. There’s much less wasted material, no need for constant deliveries to site, less disruption for neighbours, a greater ability for managers to closely supervise what’s going on and a greater likelihood (say supporters) of a higher quality end product. Another key benefit is the ability to build on smaller plots that are less easily accessible, since there’s no need for a constant stream of lorries, mixers, deliveries and so on.