1 Jun 2022 • shedkm

recent failures have rocked modular housing – but don’t write it off

The modular housing sector has been facing difficulties, says shedkm director Ian Killick, but if homes can be adapted to their context, it has a bright future.

No one said it would be easy. In the UK at least, modern methods of construction (MMC) seem to be a difficult nut to crack.

The recent demise of volumetric trailblazer House by Urban Splash was sudden and shocking. It follows the disheartening lack of success of other offsite manufacturers and their struggle to gain traction. Factory overheads, a lack of secure pipelines and investments, inflationary pressures and a shortage of skills and expertise are all contributory factors to the arguably slow growth of the MMC sector in the UK.

The architectural purity of volumetric construction, the ‘highest’ form of MMC, where I have worked extensively, is seductive; complete homes arriving at daybreak on the backs of lorries before being craned silently into place is a world away from traditional construction. But it can also be difficult to get right

Unfairly, detractors are sometimes quick to point out perceived deficiencies: repetition leading to mundanity, an inflexibility unable to adapt to context, a feeling of impermanence. The best way to counter this is by creating thoughtfully designed places and neighbourhoods where people want to live and work. The fact that their homes and workplaces have been built using offsite construction is secondary, but also has crucial additional benefits.

At shedkm, where I’ve worked for more than 20 years, we are long-term advocates of MMC. We designed our first MMC scheme, MoHo, in 2005, when modular housing design was still seen as pioneering and potentially risky. In many ways these projects were at the forefront of changing perceptions of modular construction, from something associated with post-war austerity and constraints that might limit architectural ambition, to something that can be much sought after and exemplify the best of contemporary design.

Today, we consider MMC’s potential from the same rational starting point as for any of our design briefs: how can we offer something different within the client’s budget? How can we use technology to achieve a design that adds value and improves the quality of people’s lives?

Despite this, I’ve been careful not to promote MMC as a silver bullet that can solve the UK’s housing demands. Rather it opens a route to greater variety, and an opportunity for much higher quality. Above all, the improvements being made towards low and zero carbon housing point to where the future lies. Modular products are highly sustainable and can make a significant contribution to long-life use and efficient life cycle costs.

There are a growing number of new offsite-driven companies, both manufacturers and developers, who are attracted to the benefits of MMC. These new voices are increasingly placing sustainability at the heart of the argument. Great strides have been made in developing offsite construction techniques that have a real carbon benefit. The construction techniques involved are inherently more suitable for achieving enhanced thermal performance, better airtightness and using low embodied carbon materials in a more efficient way. And as energy use regulations tighten further, the MMC industry is ideally placed to make a major contribution to a low carbon future.

The benefits of MMC are being increasingly recognised by both the private and public housing sectors. We are working in the Netherlands with Modomo, a meanwhile-housing pioneer tackling the housing crisis by creating affordable homes on unused land.

Closer to home we are continuing to develop our modular portfolio in London, delivering 250 homes for social rent for the Royal Borough of Greenwich, as an urgent response to its housing needs. All homes will achieve net zero as a minimum and have been designed with a strong focus on placemaking and the public realm. Complex contextual issues have been addressed and the existing urban fabric has been improved, with homes stitched into wider masterplans to create sustainable neighbourhoods.

So, what next to crack the nut? The offsite industry needs to ensure it can satisfy increased demand but also show how it can respond positively to the more subtle requirements of townscape and placemaking.

While MMC will not on its own offer overnight solutions to the housing crisis or the climate emergency, it continues to offer significant benefits and is a highly adaptable tool which can accommodate a variety of social and economic agendas to add value for all.

This article is taken from The Architects’ Journal.