An article in this week’s Building Magazine says: Sweden uses offsite manufacture to build at least 45% of its new homes. If the UK could emulate this approach – making use of modern techniques that allow homes to be built faster and with fewer skilled workers – it could finally overcome its huge housing shortfall. Are we approaching a tipping point where this could really happen?
Picture this. It is sub-zero outside, but you are sitting comfortably in your new-build home with very little if any heating required. There are no draughts under the perfectly fitted doors or from around the snuggly inserted windows. You are blown away by the quality and amazed in the knowledge that you could buy a house just like this and “have it knocked up in a day or two”.
This is not a pipe-dream description of Britain in 20 years’ time – although it could be. It is construction analyst Tony Williams’ factual account of modular homes today in Sweden, where he spends half his year. Building Value’s Williams says the precisely manufactured homes in Sweden are not only of very high quality but also produced at top speed and with minimal waste – not a description you are likely to hear in relation to British new-build housing.
About eight out of 10 detached houses in Sweden are built using modern methods, according to a study by University of California, Berkeley. The study also revealed at least 30% of new-build multi-residence buildings in the country use a significant degree of prefabrication, meaning at least 45% of overall housing is produced using some form of offsite manufacture.
Could it happen here?
So how far away are we from the Swedish situation, and what’s stopping us getting there? According to the British Standards Institution only about 10% of all building projects in the UK are delivered using offsite methods, with its use much more common in the construction of hotels and schools than housing. The UK has a history of building in brick and concrete, while for Britons the notion of manufactured homes often conjures up images of drafty post-war prefabs that all look the same. Professor Alex de Rijke, a director at architecture practice dRMM, says: “The legacy left was that modular homes were considered cheaper, poor quality, ugly and uninspiring.”
But more significant than negative public preconceptions, according to Jonasson’s British colleague at Södra, Jeremy English, is the view of many in the construction industry that offsite manufacturing is no more than a back-up plan for traditional building methods. English, who is UK sales director to manufacturers, says: “In the drive to offsite manufacture, people have taken a traditionally built home and turned it into a timber-framed home by taking the same set of drawings and saying ‘How can we make these walls out of timber?’ – but that’s not the best way. The best way is to say ‘We want to build this way’ and plan from there.”
There are also issues around capacity, with Stephen Kinsella, Homes England’s executive director for land, saying the big housebuilders have traditionally been reluctant to invest in new technologies because of uncertainties around a long-term pipeline. Södra’s English agrees, saying: “If you can rely on the demand you can invest the cash; it’s as simple as that.” He describes it as a chicken and egg situation, saying: “If you give me an order for a thousand houses, I’ll invest the cash, but if you give me an order for one […] I’m not so sure.”