A crescent of 24 three-storey modular townhouses at the historic Smith’s Dock site is the first phase of an 800-home development by Urban Splash, which will also include houses designed by TV presenter George Clarke and apartments by SimpsonHaugh
These are the third iteration of ShedKM’s ’hoUSe’ concept, which first hit ground in New Islington, Manchester in 2016 and is also being developed on a site at Irwell Riverside in Salford. Similar to the earlier schemes, the Smith’s Dock houses were prefabricated as timber-frame shells in the SIG Building Systems factory in Nottinghamshire, then transported as pre-assembled modules to site where they were craned into position.
The ’hoUSe’ concept allows residents to choose a design layout for their home. So has the model been further refined or adapted for the new site? ’Clearly as we develop, we are learning lessons: not in the quality but about how to build a bit more effectively and more quickly on site,’ Urban Splash co-founder Jonathan Falkingham says. ’For the North-East we’ve different cladding material compared to the ones in Manchester, which is here a light cream as opposed to black. As we go around the country we clearly have to think about the planning constraints and the context in which we are working.’
Internally, as in the previous schemes, only the position of the kitchens and bathrooms are pre-determined, with the buyer of each house – which will be on sale from £285,000 – able to choose a layout that suits their needs. As Falkingham explains:
’We’re focused on offering two things that housebuilders usually don’t major on. One is good-quality space – high ceilings and large windows – and the second is the ability to configure your home to how you want to live there. You might have kids, or not; you might have a hobby and want to throw pots in the attic. Whatever suits you, you can configure the space to allow that to happen. It’s a bit like the Victorian terrace in a way, with all the structural stuff happening in the party walls. So with all the internal walls: you can have them or not’.
Source: Urban Splash
At the houses’ launch, George Clarke also announced that he is working with Urban Splash on the site and will be designing the next phase of housing: 10 two-storey FAB dwellings – an abbreviation for ’factory-built, affordable and beautiful’. These will also be manufactured at the same Nottinghamshire factory and are expected to be on site in September. ’It’s the perfect opportunity for me to bring my passion for raising the standard of UK homes to modular development,’ Clarke explained. ’It’s a market I’ve watched and wanted to make a move in for 15 years.’
The Smith’s Dock site is an historic one, home to shipbuilding from 1851 until 1987. Speaking to the AJ, Clarke, who comes from the North-East, sees parallels in modular housebuilding and the industrial history of the area.
’If you think, when we were building ships back then, we were innovating and engineering to the highest level: to a standard that the rest of the world was envious of. We should be looking at housebuilding in the same way and putting that same level of passion into the reseach, development and engineering of manufacturing homes as they did back in the shipyard.’
Of course, well-designed mass-produced modular housing has been something of a Holy Grail in architecture, ever since Buckminster Fuller and Jean Prouvé in the 1930s began experimenting with modular and factory-built systems. But today, major issues remain in a risk-averse industry that is not prepared to invest the time and money needed to develop any new system.
’The R&D needed to develop these products is really time-consuming and costly to do,’ says Falkingham. ’It has taken us six years and a lot of money, time and learning to develop this product. It’s an incredible commitment from us as a business. In the housebuilding arena in general, it would be very hard to persuade PLC boards to invest that amount of money and time in something without a proven record. And for smaller developers there is just this barrier of time and money.’
So on this third site for the hoUSe concept, have the costs begun to come down and economies of scale kick in? The answer so far seems to be no.
’Sadly, it’s the opposite effect,’ says Falkingham. ’The theory of building factories and trying to get the costs down is something we believe in it but we need to build a lot more homes to make that a reality. We are learning fast but the costs have gone up slightly, not down. However, we do expect them to come down in time.’
So what about the creation of a wider Smith’s Dock neighbourhood? The next phases will see the first apartments complete: the Smokehouse, an apartment building of 80 dwellings by SimpsonHaugh – and there will eventually be a mix of 60 per cent apartments 40 per cent housing on the site. The Smokehouse will be sited along the waterside of one of the three docks, which are being developed as the main focus for the scheme, with shops, restaurants, bars and sporting facilities, like a canoe club. In response to the criticism that modular systems often seem to result in a lack of variation and inflection in the architecture, Falkingham insists:
’When it comes to placemaking we use appropriate and differing typologies to really make the placemaking work. Urban Splash is interested in creating strong typologies: so we we are also in R&D with two or three other products – like the ’Mansion house’ which is another apartment prototype. We are about creating distinct places which relate to the neighbourhood and locale.’