Sector - Housing

2019 – The Year Modular Goes Mainstream

Joseph Daniels, CEO of Project Etopia the luxury modular homes developer, looks at the challenges the housing shortage presents and how modular house building could solve many of these problems.

There is a generation of people in this country, fresh out of university, who face the lowest chance of owning their own home in history.

This very fact is a blight on Britain, a country which prides itself on the ability of everyone to work hard and get on.

The most unhappy sore in this sorry saga though is the fact it is completely avoidable. The UK has an addiction to expensive methods of building which don’t hamper economies in other parts of the world where a less ingrained predilection for bricks and mortar helps housing go up faster and cheaper.

Even in wealthy parts of North America, housing is very often still timber framed and enclosed with planks of wood. Compare that with Britain, where if it’s not made of brick it is almost certainly a shed. This prejudice is old-fashioned but 2019 is shaping up to be the year developers and potential homeowners shake off the assumptions about what a house should be made of and build a futuristic modular housing industry which can deliver designer homes for everyone, not just the richest.

Building technology has moved beyond brick — and wooden slats for that matter. Britain can be at the vanguard of this revolution.

Much of this will be driven by councils who have never been more proactive in engaging with the sector than they are right now. A government threat to strip away their individual planning powers certainly hasn’t hurt and they can see which way the wind is blowing.

Philip Hammond made a budget commitment in 2017 to prioritise the use of offsite manufacturing techniques and other methods of construction to improve cost effectiveness and productivity. He suggested there was an opportunity for modular housing to take the place of traditional builds.

The government has now pledged more than £44Bn to boost housing delivery across the UK and only modular presents value for this money, with its healthy profit margins for developers, quicker build times, easier planning consent and a 40% cost saving on average from groundworks to topping off.

It’s a perfect storm for bricks and mortar — and a boon for modular — at a time when consumer word of mouth hasn’t even come into play. Hardly anyone knows someone living in a modular home, fewer still have slept in one. Mr Hammond has shone a spotlight but that’s when you’ll really start to feel a buzz.

If 2018 was the year local authorities, developers and investors started to get excited about modular, 2019 has to be the year that infectious enthusiasm reaches the public at large.

The challenge will be getting people to notice. When most people walk into a modern modular home, they don’t know they are in one. They are high quality, sustainable and look like any other property with a plastered finish.

The limited upfront cost and short build time are very appealing. They lack nothing in terms of quality and the method of construction means they offer unrivalled flexibility.

Modular homes should become the crowning centre piece of Britain’s next wave of house building.

How timely then that the government last year announced plans to build ‘at least four or five’ new garden towns between Oxford and Cambridge and plans are afoot for a string of garden villages too. These could come to be modular’s biggest showcases. One of the major issues with continually extending old towns is there is not enough land available to really address the housing shortfall, and extending areas beyond recognition weakens communities.

Garden towns and villages have been heralded as an antidote to the housing crisis but to be viable they can’t be built one house or street at a time. They depend on a grand vision where there is enough of a settlement on day-one to attract people to live there. Modular can achieve that far better than bricks and mortar can. It’s the one prevailing reason why more garden cities weren’t built decades ago, following the creation of places like Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City. It took monumental political power and financial cost to create them, and so no more were forthcoming.

Amid a fresh housing crisis, garden towns are perceived as the answer again, but the methods used to construct the likes of Letchworth and Welwyn cannot simply be replicated because of the cost and time involved.

Councils have found themselves in a lose-lose situation. With building targets to meet, they regularly approve planning applications they would rather reject because they know the imperative to build, build, build means they would lose on appeal.

Local residents have grown frustrated at over-development and pressure on services. Councils can start afresh with modular. It can mean new housing, new schools, new surgeries, fewer objections, less pollution, less disruption during the build, less traffic on the same roads after the build and younger homeowners on average than at any time in the last 50 years.

Modular can also enable authorities to quickly meet housing targets, which, by and large, are already stretching out of reach, with councils six years off the pace required to build the homes their area needs on average*.

Modular homes come with added benefits too. The technology installed in them promotes energy generation and storage, making them more sustainable than traditional builds, and these features are often incorporated as standard. It promotes sustainable living from the outset, helping households keep utility costs low, while also contributing to visions for a greener future.

The technology to create ‘smart homes’ where electronics can be operated via smartphones will also be included as standard in these modular builds.

Britain’s renewed focus on garden cities is the best thing that could have happened modular housing.

If modular homes are the performance, garden cities are the stage. Someone just has to go first and the rest will follow.

*Project Etopia research.
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