A new generation of prefabs

A recent announcement by government has caused quite a stir. The suggestion is that we might build a new generation of ‘prefabs’ to help solve the housing crisis. A reasonable suggestion, after all it has the potential to cut through materials shortages, domination by volume house builders and provide houses more quickly and efficiently. The problem seems to be with the word ‘prefab’ as this evokes memories of the post-war building that took place, providing quick, cheap homes that were only ever meant to be temporary, but ended up housing people for decades in what later became unfit homes.

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So what is a modern day ‘prefab’ and why would we even contemplate it now? Prefabs are now more commonly called factory built, modular homes or kit houses. The idea of ‘kit housing’ has been around for some time and indeed is pretty standard in France and Germany where volume house builders do not rule the market. The beauty of kit housing is that it is factory built, it’s cheaper and can be erected on site pretty quickly. There are many companies out there providing this form of housing, from the original and more expensive Huf Haus, to relative newcomers to the arena like Apple Green Homes, and Snug Homes.

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The government is now proposing to use some of the £3bn house building fund to support small and medium sized builders to provide a new generation of prefabs. The advantage this type of building has is that it is generally constructed off site, in a factory building, so less constrained by weather. It uses different materials so is not subject to the same shortages and problems associated with traditional brick built dwellings and is often cheaper. Indeed many of the new model of prefabs are developed as small units, that are affordable, but which can be connected to form larger units. They also tend to be built to high environmental standards, with many of the designs modelled on Scandinavian, Dutch and German models, where energy efficiency and sustainability are central to the design approach.

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At the moment we are not geared up to this type of development in the same way as many other European countries are, it’s not been a significant part of our housing model for over 60 years. But there are plenty of examples we can look at to see how it works, at a reasonable scale, as a core part of housing delivery. In Nijmegen, The Netherlands, where I worked for a while, they are now proposing to provide sites for people to build flat-packed affordable homes under a new initiative called ‘Ik bouw betaalbaar in Nijmegen’ (IbbN). These can be constructed on site within a few weeks. In Almere, near Amsterdam, the municipality set aside 100 hectares, with the aim of creating the opportunity for around 3,000 self build homes across the overall development, many of which are timber framed, modular builds.

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But could we do it here, to a big enough scale to make an impact – that’s the key question. With support from government and local councils, land provision and support from mortgage lenders, it’s possible. These should not be seen as temporary, low cost solutions, but as permanent, affordable solutions. It will be important to ensure the highest of environmental standards and quality are a core part of the approach, as they are elsewhere. It will be interesting to see what the White Paper, due out later this month, actually says in terms of funds and support. One thing we definitely need to do is get beyond the outdated perception we have of ‘prefabs’ and start to see the possibilities that modular homes can provide to help us solve the housing crisis.

 

Pioneering alternative housing models

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When we talk about solving the housing crisis we tend to talk about supply and demand, about affordability and about providing homes for people. We seldom talk about people being in control of providing their own home. The whole housing system has morphed into one of dependency, be it dependence on private landlords, house builders or the State, someone will provide it for us. When housing professionals get together they talk about mainstream housing issues, about rent prices, about how difficult it is to build council housing or social housing for rent, about problems of land supply and land-banking by private developers. Rarely do they talk about self-build, custom build or housing co-operatives. It seems, on the surface at least, that we’ve lost some of the creativity and innovation in our debates about housing.

When you dig beneath that surface though you will find all kinds of interesting projects, that take us back to a less dependent realm of provision, where self-help and mutual aid were the guiding principles for action. This type of approach can still be seen in self-build and custom build projects, co-operative housing schemes and community led housing developments. These are schemes that are shaped and controlled by residents, where people have taken back control.

Back in 1975, over 40 years ago, the then Director of Housing at Bristol City Council published a Green Paper on housing with the following title:

“A Decent Home!! (A paper to stimulate thought and encourage participation so that policies can be evolved to tackle effectively the Housing problems of this great city.)”

What a great idea. Perhaps it’s time to have that very debate again in Bristol and to encourage participation from neighbourhoods across our city with a discussion that includes some alternative solutions to housing provision instead of focusing on a system that clearly doesn’t work. Maybe it could be a debate that involves those seeking a decent home but who can’t afford what is on offer and who have given up on a social housing system that has been reduced to such a residual service. Maybe it’s also time to listen to those who have solutions but are marginalised, as their solutions don’t support the traditional mainstream approach to housing?

There are many small-scale examples to draw from that could be included in this debate but seldom are. Why don’t we talk about co-operative housing more frequently when we have such a great example here in Bristol that is currently on site and well on its way to developing a sustainable model for converting empty office buildings into homes. Proof if ever you needed it that, even now, ordinary people can refurbish old buildings, create social housing communities and produce a modest return for investors (AEOB Group).

Why don’t we talk more about ‘kit housing’ or custom build, which is factory made, using more sustainable materials, cheaper and quicker to erect on site than traditional bricks and mortar housing? There are many companies out there providing this form of housing, from the original and more expensive Huf Haus, to relative newcomers to the arena like Apple Green Homes and the local SNUG homes developed by Ecomotive. Whilst self-build might not be an option for many, custom build and co-operative housing may just be relevant to a wider audience. Together these models of provision could provide greater opportunities to those that have been failed by our current approach to housing.

Imagine if Bristol could be one of the first in the country to develop these custom build, co-operative models further, as part of the mainstream, using public land, property and resources to support individuals and communities to make things happen? Imagine if we could just find a way to support people to develop their own plans and models of future living? There’s a challenge here for Bristol to make this happen. And there’s a challenge to all of us to support these different initiatives to help effect the change that is needed. As Colin Ward put it so well:

”… if people are given the reins, get the right help and are committed, they can come up with a really excellent viable housing scheme that people want to live in”.

(Colin Ward, 1985:120, “When we build again, let’s have housing that works”)

The text of this blogpost was first written for The Bristol Cable and appeared there in April 2016.

Bristol needs more homes

Social housing in ViennaBristol needs more homes, particularly affordable homes, an undeniable fact, with over 14,000 on the council waiting list and many more people living in overcrowded, unsuitable and poor quality housing. Others are forced to travel long distances everyday to get to work in the city because they can’t afford to live here. So what’s the council doing about it? Well affordable housing was a key issue in the Mayoral election, it was top of the agenda, alongside transport, pushed there by Marvin Rees (Labour candidate) and picked up by the current Mayor in his manifesto. But have we seen any real change?

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The Problem with Housing Policy

The problem with housing policy is we are all just too passive, we don’t take control. We know there is a problem, even if some deny it. We know volume house builders and housing associations seem incapable, unable or unwilling to solve the problem – that is they are not building enough homes each year to house all the people that desire a home at a price they can afford. Yet for some reason we just sit back passively waiting for someone else to sort it all out. Perhaps we could learn a lesson or two from history?

In UK housing history there are some fantastic examples of people taking control for themselves, of claiming areas of land and building their own home. Perhaps the best example is that of the ‘plotlanders’ of South East England in the early 20th Century, where areas of disused agricultural land were sold off in small plots to people wanting to build their own holiday home or small holding, these were then gradually improved and extended into permanent homes. This was all pretty much unregulated (before the introduction of the 1947 Planning Act) and led to quite strange areas of ad hoc layouts and designs around the Essex coast. But whatever they looked like, these were fiercely independent communities, who had built their own homes, without help from those in power, they’d done it through self help and mutual aid – an interesting concept often mentioned by Colin Ward in his writings on housing and planning – borne out of anarchist philosophy where people come together in voluntary cooperation without the need for state intervention, authority and control. There are many examples of squatters and others who have reclaimed the land, taking over derelict or empty properties to turn these into much needed homes, or travellers who have purchased land and tried to settle on it.These examples in recent times are, however, all to infrequent and unsuccessful, often written off as the fringe activity of a radical few and stifled by regulation and enforcement action.

Given the large numbers of people who can no longer afford a decent home to live in you have to wonder why it is that more direct action or self help has not been the order of the day. What is that would generate this tipping point where people seek to take control for themselves? Or have we really become a nation of passive people happy to rely on the private market or state to provide for our basic needs? It’ll be interesting to see just how bad things have to get before we see real change in this area.

One of the things that does appear to be happening at the moment is a slight shift of attention away from mass build towards self build or custom build as an option for housing supply. In the UK this is but a tiny proportion of current build (7-10%) compared to other European Countries where the figure is more likely to be over 50%. Recent reports by Alex Morton of the Policy Exchange and the Self Build Government Industry Working Group both refer to the potential of  self build to make a much greater contribution to housing provision. Both also refer to the planning system as a major barrier to this happening at the moment, as well as land values, difficulties of financing schemes, mortgage lenders etc. So it seems there could be a solution, based on the idea of self help, that is gathering some interest at last.It remains to be seen whether or not anything will happen as a result of these various reports and to what extent the Lyons Housing Review recently set up by the Labour Party will even consider this as part of the solution, or whether it will focus instead on typical mass scale solutions like new towns and garden cities?

Alex Marsh in a recent blog on housing talks about the need to go back to first principles and suggests that 2014 could just be the year where we see the housing policy debate get serious – couldn’t agree more and let’s hope he is right. But to do that could involve some quite radical thinking and radical change in not just housing policy, but also planning policy and other areas too.

One things for sure, something needs to change or we might just reach that tipping point where people do begin to take control for themselves!