The Housing Forum – A new approach to housebuilding

A factory-made home, manufactured from a kit of parts fabricated in China and brought to the UK, was one of a number of innovative solutions put forward to help solve the housing crisis at Stable Media’s first Housing Forum in Warwickshire last month.

More than 100 delegates at the two-day event heard speakers discuss harnessing modern methods of construction (MMC) to speed up home building and improve quality as well as how new technologies were saving money in maintenance and asset management.

The conference programme was held against a backdrop of ambitious government targets of 300,000 new homes a year and a greater focus on offsite manufacture and new ways of thinking.

Here are the Conference highlights:

Meet the Metrohome

One of the firms looking to disrupt the market is Atkins, a global consultancy now part of the SNC-Lavlin group, with a new product that it is hoping to develop in partnership with local authorities to provide affordable homes. Stephen Workman, head of residential at the group, said that the new homes would be built from a kit of parts, designed by Atkins, and then manufactured in China. The new housing product, called Metrohome, can be configured to suit a number of typologies, including detached, semi-detached and town-houses. It is designed to national space standards and is expected to cost 25% less to build compared with traditional methods, said Mr Workman.

The system can be delivered at volume – which could benefit the London market, where 66,000 new homes need to be built each year to meet the London Housing Plan. The Mayor Sadiq Khan has set a target for 50% of new homes to be ‘genuinely affordable.’

Mr Workman said that Atkins was already working with the London Borough of Lambeth to deliver new Metrohomes at Hillside Gardens. With Atkins’ reputation as a world-leader, this development will certainly be watched with interest.

Future homes on trial

Home Group was certainly living up to its reputation as one of the country’s most ambitious housing associations, with a project unveiled by Brian Ham,  executive director for development.

Ham said the association has plans to build 10,000 new homes between 2017 and 2022 and is investigating how modern methods of construction will play a part.

It is developing a site in Gateshead called the Innovation Village, which will trial – with the participation of the inhabitants – different modern methods of construction, three different heating systems and a range of ‘smart technologies’. The Village will form part of the Great Exhibition of the North which opens in June. The whole project is an exemplar of how quickly homes can be built if the will is there, said Mr Ham. The project started in August 2017, the scheme went in for planning permission in January, and work started on site in March. The first phase will be completed in June. The different MMC methodologies selected so far are: volumetric light weight steel frame; panelised light steel frame; aerated concrete panels; and volumetric timber frame.

Other housing developers and manufacturers will be keen to see the results.

How technology is changing repairs and maintenance

Reduced rental income and increased costs is certainly putting pressure on housing providers to better manage their stock. The Forum heard from two experts in this area about their strategies for success. Paul Reader, partnerships director at Morgan Sindall, described how collecting and analysing repairs data had allowed the firm to make more informed decisions to prioritise repairs and use planned and responsive maintenance budgets more efficiently across the 200,000 domestic properties it looks after nationwide.

Also picking up on efficiencies in repair and maintenance was Hyde’s director of asset management, Brent O’Halloran. Hyde has moved away from lifecycle replacement to demand-led replacement. Mr O’Halloran said that the approach challenged conventional wisdom, but after three years Hyde has achieved savings of £22m with “no discernible difference” in the quality of their housing stock, and the approach has actually increased tenants’ satisfaction.

How long before others follow suit?

Thinking differently about the housing crisis

Solutions put forward to solve the housing crisis weren’t purely focused on offsite construction. The Forum also heard from WSP’s technical director Audrey McIver how building over infrastructure such as rail tracks and stations could provide a solution. Though it can present engineering challenges, the beauty of this approach is that no new land is required, she pointed out.

A similar ‘thinking outside the box’ approach was put forward by Mark Barker, director of architecture at Self Architects. As people live longer and young people remain living at home, Mr Barker called for homes to be designed to be more flexible and adaptable for ‘multi-generational living’.  Mr Barker showed template designs with separate annexes, ‘upside down’ living and extendable balconies and he called for greater debate on finance options to make development of ‘multi-generational’ homes possible.

A sober ending

The Grenfell tragedy has brought into sharp focus the need for clients to change the way homes are refurbished and the way work is procured. Speaker Sir Ken Knight, chair of the Expert Panel advising the Government, described how large-scale fire testing tests on cladding had identified 312 residential and public buildings over 18m in England with unsafe cladding systems.

It is without a doubt one of the biggest challenges facing the sector and all are waiting for the Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of high rise and the building regulations, which is due at the end of May.

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