Modular Housing: Can it help the UK housing market?

Alex Playle – Quantity Surveyor

It is no secret that the UK housing market is currently under pressure to provide extensive, affordable and quality homes to meet continued demand. One of the solutions frequently thrown into the ring due to its growing reputation for lower cost and quicker build time is modular housing. Modular housing may feel like a new and modern method of construction, but its roots date back to the post-World War II era and beyond. In 1855 during the Crimean War, Isambard Kingdom Brunel – one of the most ingenious and prolific figures in engineering history – was commissioned to design a prefabricated modular hospital. In five months he devised the Renkioi Hospital: a 1,000 patient hospital, with innovations in sanitation, ventilation and a flushing toilet.

Whilst the word ‘modular’ often brings to mind on-site cabins, there is much more to modular construction than just site welfare. A modular building is a prefabricated structure that consists of repeated sections called modules. In most cases, the entire module is constructed in factory conditions with each element, such as the floor, frame and even bathroom, built in one place. These modules are then transported to site and installed, often being joined or stacked to create larger high-rise buildings. In other cases only smaller elements are built off-site, for example a building’s plantroom, which are transported and installed on-site separately to the main, traditionally constructed building. In any case, this all falls under modular or off-site construction.

Benefits

Modular housing and its techniques have a range of benefits that make it a viable alternative to other traditional forms of house building. These include:

  • High quality control: As the modules are constructed in factory conditions, quality control can be carried out to a higher standard than on a traditional site. Finishes, joints and seals can be completed and better protected from, for example, weather and foot traffic. Similarly, tolerances, such as variations in dimensions, can be monitored closely due to greater control in factory settings.
  • Reduction in programme: On average a modular building is built up to 50% quicker than a traditional one. This is in part due to the construction phase taking place off-site, meaning that project programmes are kept to a minimum, and time and footfall on-site can be significantly reduced.
  • Safer working conditions: The process of modular building is generally safer for operatives than conventional on-site construction. The majority of the works taking place in an off-site facility prevents exposure to on site risks such as outdoor conditions, presence of heavy machinery and working at height, thus reducing the likelihood of accidents.
  • Cost savings: Savings can be made through economies of scale due to repeated orders of certain materials or the constant use of certain techniques which factory operatives will become more skilled at as time goes on. Less skilled workers can also be utilised in factory settings due to the repetitive nature of the works. This again leads to significant cost savings compared to paying a variety of different and highly skilled trades.
  • Lower environmental impact: As the module is constructed inside a factory, there is a reduced presence on-site until installation takes place, lowering the use of plant. Modular homes can also use more sustainable materials in their construction and are designed to be more energy efficient than modern traditional homes.

Drawbacks

However, as with any form of construction, modular housing and its methods do present some significant drawbacks when compared with traditional methods of house building. Some of these are as follows:

  • Barriers to entry: The initial outlay for a production facility capable of producing modular units is significant and returns on investment are not quick. This provides barriers for firms trying to enter the market, which limits options and competition and keeps the amount built at a very small number.
  • Design inflexibility: Changes to a modular house at the construction phase causes large delays in production and significantly increases overall construction costs. Design is therefore crucial; if changes are to be made, they must be done pre construction.
  • Public perception: Currently, public perception is relatively negative. The technique is unknown to the majority of laypeople and it is believed that its ‘flat-pack’ nature results in a lack of quality.
  • Resale issues: Modular homes are generally more difficult to sell than traditional ones. This is due to them being viewed as ‘pre-fab’ homes and the misconception that they are of poor quality.

Is it a viable solution?

The UK Government targets construction of 300,000 homes per year to keep up with the demand of a more affluent and growing population.1 Yet, this demand cannot be met, and on average only around 160,000 are built per year. This leaves an obvious gap in supply of houses that needs to be filled, with modular housing being one of the options.

Currently, only around 15,000 modular homes are built per year. However, key leaders in the industry are beginning to invest and commit to increasing those numbers to help find a smarter, quicker and more cost effective way of meeting demand. We are also seeing UK Government policy beginning to shift in favour of modular housing, with schemes such as the Home Building Fund and Construction Corridor boost.2 These schemes are investing significant funds in the creation of new, eco-friendly modular homes to encourage market growth and allow a greater supply of these structures to be produced. This investment by both industry leaders and the Government shows that modular housing is seen as a viable solution to ease demands on traditional house building in the UK.

There is no doubt that modular housing has a part to play in addressing the current and ever-increasing demand for housing in the UK in the years to come. But how big a part it will play? This depends on the level of investment injected into the industry and whether both suppliers and the general public embrace it as a true solution to the current lack of housing supply.

I consider that we will begin to see modular construction utilised more frequently by some of the biggest firms in the industry; it is something we must welcome with open arms if we are to move forward and provide affordable, quality housing for all.


1 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-54731662 (accessed 25 January 2021).
2 https://www.gov.uk/government/news/housing-minister-unveils-30m-boost-for-construction-corridor (accessed 25 January 2021).


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