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Thinking outside the box

Metal Works - Ed Donald of Corus Living Solutions, set up last year to design, manufacture and deliver accommodation modules, talks of a step change coming in house construction

He would say that wouldn't he? As one of the group building a business with an initial capacity to deliver 3,000 units per year. But you don't make that level of investment on a whim. Nor just on a feeling that its time has come, that modular construction is becoming a more-accepted part of the palette of construction possibilities. Nor on the optimism of ODPM. Ed Donald is as aware as anyone that pioneering schemes, such those of Peabody with Cartwright Pickard (Murray Grove, AJ 25.11.99) and Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (Raines Court, Metalworks, AJ 25.9.03), have been just that - pioneering schemes. Such projects are certainly convincing in terms of architecture, but they have not triggered much change in normal building practice.

Donald is in the business of business.

While speed on site, factory quality in an era of skills shortages, the constraints of building on tight urban sites, etc, can sometimes tip the balance toward modular construction, for his business to expand substantially it has to compete effectively head-to-head, in cost terms, with more-traditional methods.

He believes this is happening now, in some areas. For the short term, especially, standardisation is of course the key. The markets he is particularly focused on are ones where the module (or two) is the room - largely the multi-occupancy residential market - where the client is not providing individual options to individual occupants. Thus, student and key-worker housing, care homes, hotel extensions, the MOD's proposed move to single living accommodation barracks, and the like.

And this sort of project can also be relatively unattractive to traditional contractors - each unit with one of everything, all that plumbing and electrics, the prospect of endless snagging lists stretching into the distance. Fully-finished modules, locked and delivered to site, can make financial sense in this context.

Donald's view on standardisation is straightforward. Is it an appropriate response to client need? Some architects certainly take the view that standardisation and architecture are incompatible. But, fly over Britain, Donald invites us, and we see that through using traditional, non-standardised, ostensibly-flexible construction technology we have achieved a massive de facto standardisation of housing. In time, flexible manufacturing may, paradoxically, bring us more variety rather than the less we 'enjoy' today (as the case studies of Hengelo, page 4, and Almere, page 11, illustrate happening now on a small scale, or in the example of Toyota Home).

Not surprisingly, talking with Donald about standardisation and Egan brings us to cars. For cars we accept variety within standardisation, we take it for granted. Donald asks us to compare the improvements in car performance since the Second World War with those in housing. There is central heating, plus changes largely forced on the industry 9by energy legislation, but little else. Is there no room for improvement? The variety that so-called 'mass producers' of cars can offer is greater for many than the variety that is practically available in a tight housing market.

'Standardisation' is a matter of degree. Currently, Donald's pre-engineered room can come in 90 sizes (6 widths x 15 lengths). Then there can be the pre-engineered lounge, wheelchair unit, communal kitchen, double room, etc. A 3D computer package is being developed for use by designers. All this can bring a written guarantee of Building Regulations and DDA compliance of the units. There is also potential, Donald suggests, to modularise more of the rest - foundations, roofs, etc. Corus market research among architects showed that the younger ones, especially, are ready to embrace such industrialised construction methods.

Corus is a big player and Donald feels construction needed at least one big player to make a change - though it didn't have to be Corus, he points out. Other large organisations may well see the potential too, not necessarily from construction, as Toyota did with Toyota Home in Japan. And we may see such organisations in the UK market too.

Living Solutions has just completed a demonstrator barracks building for the MoD, of 51 rooms including 36 en-suite bedrooms.

There are another 144 such buildings to be built if the PFI contract can be won. While this is interesting in itself, Donald is keen to point out that such standardisation is not the modular future, even for himself. Industrialised manufacturers are certainly developing faster than has the traditional residential construction sector since the Second World War.

One possible next step is hybrid construction for mixed-use developments. These would have wide-span building structures at lower levels, such as retail or leisure, with a transfer structure and some mix of panel and modular residential construction above, maybe with additional framing to go higher than the current limit. Some of that approach was evident in Feilden Clegg Bradley's Lillie Road housing for Peabody Trust (AJ 16.10.03).

Industrialised manufacturers may turn out to be as well equipped to deliver such packages as traditional main contractors, though Living Solutions itself eschews site-work.

Donald does not claim to speak for more than himself. What Corus Living Solutions is doing is one model of the changing industrialisation of construction. We can see some of the variety of approaches being developed among other members of the Steel Homes Group for example (page 7). But Corus' moves into modules and also into light steel framing are some of the strongest signals for some time of change afoot.

And that will affect design too, of course.

Understanding the opportunities and constraints applies to design with any technology.

And this is not just the detail of building. To go modular, as Donald points out, designers will find that waiting until outline planning permission is won can be too late. Architects need to acquaint themselves with these new technologies so that they can think prefabrication from the project start. The making of buildings has always been inextricably part of architecture.

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