Without a fresh approach to housing design and delivery, the same issues are likely to remain, Andrew Shepherd, managing director of TopHat, says architects must embrace modular construction to avoid poor design
It is safe to say that modular housing has come a long way from the drab prefabs of the last century.
Back then prefab housing fulfilled a simple requirement: to house families displaced during the Blitz as quickly and cheaply as possible.
These are different times, but the need to provide new housing is arguably no less urgent.
While traditional approaches to housebuilding fall short in terms of design and post-Covid construction productivity continues to lag, we need some blue-sky thinking.
With new technology pushing the envelope in terms of digitisation, design and delivery, modular’s moment has surely arrived.
High-quality precision-built construction projects
Architects, developers and investors are all looking at modular as a way to guarantee the delivery of high quality, precision-built construction projects – and not just in the UK, but across the US, Europe and the Middle East.
From an architectural standpoint, there is much to celebrate. This second wave of offsite manufacture points to a brave new world of design – alternative approaches which both enhance how buildings look and feel, and the wellbeing of their occupants.
Good design should be fundamental to the planning process. Unfortunately, as the Bartlett review disclosed earlier this year, that isn’t always the case. Three-quarters of all housing developments are now deemed to be mediocre or poor.
The UK Government recently established a new body to oversee the creation of new design codes in England.
Not before time. This move now puts good design at the forefront of the planning process.
However, without a fresh approach to housing design and delivery, the same issues are likely to remain.
We need a new approach
This is where modular construction comes in. Modular offers a simple, innovative and sustainable solution to poor building design.
Firstly, there is the innovation point. Precision-built housing designed, developed and delivered using the latest digital technology ensures that good design is replicated time and time again.
Good design also means greener processes – and greener homes. Modular construction uses 20-30% less energy than traditional methods, according to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee.
Precision construction reduces air-leakage within the new building, while the factory assembly significantly lowers on-site noise and air pollution. Through these processes, construction waste is also minimised, meaning fewer overflowing skips and wind-strewn materials littering the site.
In purely financial terms, modular costs no more than traditional bricks and mortar construction and with the consideration of time, often less. Good design is the difference between a dream home and a house of horrors that fails to sell. Homes that have been designed and built better hold their value for longer.
Aesthetics can sometimes be subjective – but it is difficult to argue with economic fact.
More prosaically, the notion that good architectural design and prefabricated construction run counter to each other is patently false.
In the US, Frank Lloyd Wright, the leading light of American modernist architecture, designed a number of panelised homes between 1911 and 1916.
The architect’s plan to provide affordable, architect-designed housing for the average American was eventually derailed by material shortages after the US joined the Great War, but the legacy of these homes – in terms of design and ethos – is something many contemporary architects are seeking to emulate.
Modular can be beautiful, innovative and even heritage. In the UK, a beautiful glass-fronted eaterie in the heart of Duke of York Square won an architectural award after being built entirely offsite. As more architects utilise the tools offsite manufacturing provides, we can expect more culturally-significant modular buildings to emerge – eradicating the memory of those less-than-salubrious prefabs of yesteryear.
In short, modular provides a well-designed, affordable and sustainable product. It’s time to embrace offsite manufacturing for all elements of the construction production.
Get ready for the second wave of modular – a new design for living.