Merlin Fulcher revisits Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ award-winning scheme in Milton Keynes as the practice launches its Mark II version of the groundbreaking prefabricated house building method
Last week the government pledged £3 billion to kick-start the ‘biggest public housing programme for over 20 years’. Experts were sceptical. Even with additional funding, could the construction industry really deliver these 165,000 new affordable homes by 2018?
The timing could not have been better for Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP) to announce Oxley Woods Mark II – the evolution of its 2008 Manser Medal-winning quick-to-build homes. The new model has a faster build time with prefabricated components, and meets the zero-carbon requirements for Code for Sustainable Homes Level 6. A prototype house is expected to be built in the courtyard of the Royal Academy as part of the Richard Rogers retrospective opening later this month.
According to RSHP partner Ivan Harbour, the honed construction system ‘is 40 per cent more cost-effective than conventionally built buildings’ and there are ‘a number of local authorities … very interested in those figures’.
But if Oxley Woods’ modern eco-friendly housing represents the way forward, why has it so far failed to transform volume builders’ methods? And why, after constructing 122 of the 145 planned RSHP homes, has the developer chosen to pursue alternative designs by another practice?
Oxley Woods ‘high street’ overlooks the unfinished plot which was originally intended to feature RSHP’s off-site manufactured housing. The wasteland meadow could host alternative dwellings by CMYK if planning is achieved later this month
On the day I visit, Oxley Woods’ meandering Buckinghamshire village-style layout with flower-lined streets feels a world apart from the New Town grid squares of Milton Keynes. Even on a dull June day, the multi-coloured panels of the affordable starter-homes – pejoratively dubbed Lego Land by taxi drivers – look flash. Closer inspection of the facade reveals patchy construction dust crying out for a window cleaners’ chamois.
But this isn’t because Oxley Woods’ residents – typically architects, graphic designers, hairdressers, photographers and IT specialists – don’t have a sense of pride and community. In fact, many claim the architecture itself has attracted diverse but ‘like-minded’ folk, such as mixed-ethnicity couples, gay partners and retired residents.
People are buoyed up by living in these houses – they are really different
‘People are buoyed up by living in these houses – they are really different,’ says retired architect Barbara Swann, who relocated to a three-bedroom home overlooking Oxley Woods’ yet-to-be-built final phase in November 2007. Her views are not untypical. A sample survey of residents completed 18 months after completion revealed 100 per cent of residents would recommend Oxley Woods to friends and family – results that shocked client Taylor Wimpey.
Described by Manser judges as a ‘thorough-going attempt at innovation within the all-too risk-averse conventional house builders’ market’ the suburban Milton Keynes development was the product of John Prescott’s Design for Manufacture competition to create a £60,000 house using modern methods of construction. The acclaimed houses – designed to be constructed in three days from full-height insulated wall panels – were expected to pave the way for an industry-wide revolution in off-site manufacture, which would put paid to scaffolding, lengthy builds and muddy sites.
Surveying the landscape, it’s no surprise that many of these residents also describe themselves as pioneers. The once green-field terrain now resembles a suburban Eldorado where eponymous ‘noddy boxes’ close ranks against their experimental neighbours. Behind the loose panels and pockmarked scrubland, Oxley Woods residents are satisfied.
Richard Minns – who works services global banking IT systems from his living room – said: ‘We were going to move into The Hub [by Glenn Howells] in the city centre, which was opening at the same time – thank god we didn’t. I’m proud to be a part of an experiment.’
Mobile hairdresser Gemma McCann – who relocated to Oxley Woods with her partner Matt in 2007 – added: ‘When I visit other new estates in Milton Keynes I feel very grateful to live where I do. This is due to the open spaces surrounding our homes and also when I look out of my house I am not subjected to brick walls from surrounding houses and gardens.’
Furthermore, the estate’s attrition rate – which might indicate satisfaction with housing quality – has been low, with only five households selling and moving on in the past six years.
Even significant falls in house prices since the first units sold at the pinnacle of the housing boom have failed to dampen spirits. McCann said: ‘We bought our home in the first time buyer scheme for £180,000. Due to the recession it is now valued at £150,000, but it doesn’t concern us as we plan to be here for a long time still to come.’
But there have been teething troubles. Problems faced by early residents ranged from leaks to faulty doors and windows, and in one case ‘severe water ingress’. These issues were attributed by RSHP to ‘defects in manufacturing and construction’ in 2009.
These problems were singled out by one source close to the project as the reason behind cost overruns across the development. Taylor Wimpey has declined to comment on this claim, but clues can be found in a 2010 Homes & Communities Agency document, which admitted: ‘Of all the [Design for Manufacture] sites, Oxley Woods has been the most expensive to build, with the main increase being in the superstructure, due to variation between property designs.’
The wider industry’s adoption of off-site manufacture and construction – supported by English Partnerships (which later became HCA) – was derailed by the recession. And in Oxley Woods’ case, in 2011 in a statement by regional managing director Peter Gurr, the house builder Taylor Wimpey actually pointed to low consumer demand alongside high costs to justify abandoning RSHP’s designs.
The development’s much-vaunted bright red ‘eco-hat’ also proved a let-down, with some residents complaining it had been ‘oversold’. Minns said: ‘When we were first looking at properties they were saying [the eco-hat] is a solar collector and heat exchanger – it doesn’t really do any of that. At the moment all it’s used for is heat extracting and air flow.’
The name ‘eco-hat’ was coined by the project manager because it sounds funky
In response, RSHP project architect Simon Tonks said: ‘The name “eco-hat” was coined by the project manager because it sounds funky. They were looking for a way to sell product and they latched onto what they saw was the USP, the eco-hat and the energy performance.’
Finally, RSHP designed the homes to be well insulated, airtight, and 20 per cent more efficient than Building Regulations required at the time, but combined gas and electricity costs of residents interviewed vary from £40 to £100 a month across households.
A more detailed analysis is unavailable, according to Oxley Wood’s M&E engineer, Stuart McDougall, previously of RYBKA and now at Peter Brett Associates, who confirmed a post-occupancy evaluation of the scheme’s energy performance has yet to be completed.
That residents are largely opposed to Taylor Wimpey’s planning application for Oxley Woods’ more traditionally constructed final tranche, designed by CMYK, testifies to the success of RSHP’s design. The residents who are campaigning against the final phase claim its lack of innovation is their principle concern.
Summing up residents’ opposition, Swann said: ‘The best thing would be if they had completed the estate as they should have done. If they came up with something simple, specifically designed to sit properly on the site, maybe we would consider it very favourably.’
In a statement, a Taylor Wimpey spokesman said: ‘Our revised proposals for the final 26 homes at Oxley Woods have been prepared in response to comments received in the refusal of our previous planning application for the site, in addition to further feedback from members of the local community.’ The proposals are set to go before Milton Keynes’ planning committee on 11 July.
Looking back on Taylor Wimpey’s decision to drop RSHP’s designs, Minns said: ‘Handing such an innovative design over to a house builder was always going to be problematic. The cost of building these was probably higher than Taylor Wimpey had imagined [neither was it] as efficient [nor] as quick.’
But Harbour blamed the house builder’s reliance on an established supply chain, claiming off-site manufacture was ‘an irritation to them’.
He said: ‘The concept of building fast, effectively and well doesn’t work with their model of development, which is all about banking land for as long as you can to make as much money as you can.’
Harbour believes all of the teething problems have been addressed in the Oxley Woods redux and that the system could resurrect housebuilding by knocking 25 to 40 per cent off the cost of traditional building.
The method, which involves volumetric components being delivered by lorry before being fitted together on site, means a 24-unit block could be erected in just four weeks, the practice claimed.
Furthermore, the Code Level 6 design means energy savings could be up to 90 per cent greater than conventional housing.
RSHP partner Ivan Harbour said the faster-to-build homes – currently being pursued by RSHP with clients such as land-owning investment banks, high street banks and housing associations – would save developers money, particularly by reducing borrowing time before rent is received.
Key projects include a 30-unit affordable scheme, which will be operated by YMCA in the London borough of Merton. Due to be submitted for planning this summer, the project will feature rents approximately 45 per cent below open market prices.
Simon Tuddenham, associate director at Colliers, which is advising on the project, said: ‘The banks are sitting on thousands of schemes throughout the UK which have been mothballed. With this scheme you can bring forward the point of achieving cost-effectiveness and deliver it earlier.
‘[The approach] really should unlock affordable housing, specifically for sites where clients have a need to go up quickly or are just not viable with traditional construction methodologies.’
Harbour said: ‘My view is that if Oxley Woods could make a small difference in a very big sector it would be the most important project in the office. When we started out, we were hoping we could change the way the industry puts houses together. Now, if we can get it up and running, it could kick-start housebuilding in a recession.’
Meet Oxley Woods’ residents
IT specialist Richard Minns chose Oxley Woods over a rival city centre development when relocating from a 1940s home in August 2007
‘A lot of people call it Lego Land. I call it Moon Base Alpha, because it would look great on the moon with a big dome over it. I’m proud to be a part of an experiment. We were going to move into The Hub in the city centre, which was opening at same time – thank god we didn’t. The proposals [Taylor Wimpey and CMYK] are putting forward are perfectly acceptable houses, but it’s not really about that, it’s about the idea and it’s much more fundamental.’
A first time buyers’ initiative helped energy policy adviser Chris Littlecott, his partner Sandra and their two children relocate to Oxley Woods in December 2009
‘There was a willingness to accept that not everything would be perfect in the homes because they were new and it was a new construction method. Oxley Woods has attracted people from a wide variety of backgrounds. Only recently has there started to be a turnover. Having a non-traditional design was attractive to us. There’s a real sense of privacy and sense of space because of the quality of the internal layout – the designs and the light.’
Retired architect Barbara Swann downsized from a 1980s family house to move to Oxley Woods in November 2007
‘I was hoping to find something with low energy bills, which was comfortable and suitable for ageing. I pay a direct debit of £45 a month for heating and gas. It heats up very quickly and, being of an older generation, I tend to wear jumpers in winter and am thrifty. I put a curtain at the bottom of the stairs to keep the heat in. In summer it gets quite warm on the first floor but you can cool it down by opening windows. People are buoyed up by living in these houses – they are really different.’
Hairdresser Gemma McCann and her partner Matt relocated to Oxley Woods in 2007. Both are ‘extremely worried’ about the development plans
‘When I visit other new estates in Milton Keynes I feel very grateful to live where I do. This is due to the open spaces surrounding our homes and also when I look out of my house I am not subjected to brick walls from surrounding houses and gardens. Different designs would ruin the look and feel of the community and confuse future buyers. We have formed an amazing community over the years of living here and I think it has a lot to do with the uniqueness of our houses.’
Arup Associates director Hal Currey on the benefits of off-site manufactured housing
In the South East, house prices continue to outpace wage rises; the private rented sector has cashed in but the quality of design and construction is generally poor. With affordability the key word, off-site manufacture appears to be gaining momentum.
The residents of Oxley Woods appear to be pleased with their lot. The residents’ forum cites huge windows, lots of space and low energy bills as key reasons for purchase. These criteria align with the findings of the RIBA’s Case for Space yet aren’t sufficient for the developer behind Oxley Woods to stick with RSHP’s vision. An alternative funding model may unlock the potential.
At Arup Associates we have had recent experience of delivering a 20,000 square foot new build house using an established Bavarian SIPS system. The quality is good, the frame build time extraordinarily quick but the system lacks the flexibility to accommodate a range of architectural details. Initial programme advantages have been lost following a lengthy fit out phase. This experience has been useful in developing a new building system with a strategic partner – a blueprint that can be applied across a range of housing types to create a pattern book for twenty first century housing. Materials and detailing are appropriate for the manufacturing process and include fully fitted kitchens and bathrooms.
Whilst margins remain healthy, the current providers of mass housing show only limited interest in changing their ways, but may be looking over their shoulders as a new breed of home builders enter the market with sample designs that address the key criteria of space, light and sustainability.