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Why we need a design code for modular homes


Architects should work with manufacturers to establish a design code for all factory-built modular homes, ensuring quality through the sector, writes Assael’s Rory O’Hagan

Rory o'hagan

A year has already passed since Mark Farmer published his landmark review into the failings of the construction industry, titled ‘Modernise or Die’. Farmer’s report was not created out of thin air. Ailing productivity, an ageing workforce, declining levels of investment in skills and training, low levels of new entrants into the workforce and repeated failures to innovate have all led to an industry that is not fit for purpose. 

As architects, we have a vested interest in the functionality, efficiency and health of the construction sector. Construction turns our designs into a reality. A variety of remedies have been prescribed to help cure this ailing sector, but one method that has been gaining traction is modular construction.

Modular construction is increasingly attractive to a sector already facing labour shortages – a problem that is only going to worsen when free movement comes to an end. By assembling in a controlled factory environment, using production line techniques to complete most of the fit out, both speed of delivery and quality of end product can be dramatically improved. This could be construction’s Ford moment, industrialising the housebuilding sector.

While my optimistic side sees the potential of modular construction in the UK, there remains a few hurdles which our industry must overcome. The first is scale. Just like manufacturing, the benefits accrue with scale, where efficiencies are achieved and economies of scale bring down unit cost. To achieve this transformative scale, we need large developers and investors with big project pipelines to take a long view, be brave and go modular. Undoubtedly, demand for homes is not the issue, but the capacity to deliver them is.

Creating enough modular capacity to make a tangible contribution to the housing crisis requires a more joined-up, collaborative approach across the whole sector. Instead of housing associations looking to set up smaller, bespoke factories to satisfy the demand for houses within their jurisdiction, we need to see mergers and partnerships that drive capacity in the existing factories, which have the recognised accreditations and proven track records.

Of course, backing a few established systems is risky. Not only could you back the wrong horse, but you could also stifle the innovation created from free competition. That’s why creating and establishing a recognised design code is essential to lowering barriers to entry, increasing interoperability and ensuring quality throughout the offsite sector, while remaining agnostic.

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Creekside Wharf modular housing by Assael for Essential Living

There are distinct parallels with car design and development. All cars adhere to universal design constraints, ergonomic constants and safety criteria. Several car manufacturers have adopted a modular design approach whereby a single drivetrain and components are shared across multiple brands and models.

The modular construction sector would benefit from a similar approach, where collaboration among manufacturers, designers and architects aims to drive innovation and capacity in the sector, with the design code establishing the constraints and common parameters for all factory-built modular homes.

Not only would a design code ensure the quality of homes built using modular construction, but it would also help build confidence in the sector. Confidence is in woefully short supply, as many consumers are yet to shake off the negative connotations of post-war prefabs and lenders and investors are – predictably – risk averse to this modern form of construction.

If modular is going scale up, then we – as architects – need to lead by example, working collaboratively to advise and design in a way that secures the future of this emerging build technology.

Rory O’Hagan is a director at Assael


Readers' comments (3)

  • Not sure exactly what is being suggested in this article. Am I correct in assuming it is a plea for yet more uniformity in the design of boxy horrors more suited to the housing of fowl??
    Off-site assembly IMO is not the way to go. Given that modular housing must, of necessity, be of timber construction, far better would be the remote cutting of constituent parts and assembly on site. I know!! I know!! The howls will go up about a skills shortage. What skills, I must ask? It takes precious little training to get an employee up to speed banging together pre-cut parts; scarcely more to cobble together a crew proficient in modern drywall techniques.
    As to creating building codes adaptive to modular homes; I would suggest those structures should be built to comply with the IBC(International Building Code) And, while we're at it - ditch the Building Regulations and adopt the IRC in its entirety.

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  • Every 10 years or so someone produces a groundbreaking report, Egan etc. that the construction industry is hopeless, and needs radical reform. Some worthwhile and sensible incremental changes are made, and things get better. The construction industry is not as bad as some academics seem to think. And our architects and Engineers are amongst the best in the world.

    What holds up housing production is the availability of suitable land, and getting planning permission past hopeless local authorities and the local nimbies. The construction industry is quite capable of keeping up with this tourtiose, especially with all the hard working skilled labour we are getting from Eastern Europe. This will continue, despite Brexit, because this is where this workforce wants to work.

    Building is a bespoke trade, components like boilers, baths and cookers are provided by specialist suppliers, but they are assembled on site, brick by brick, joist by joist. It's quite simple. If prefab was the best way to go it would have been adopted years ago, despite it being trail blazed by some very good architects and Huf houses.

    Small teams with a wheel barrow and a cement mixer built 4 million, mostly semi detached homes from pattern books between the 2 world wars, revived the economy, and paid for the ships and Spitfires that won the second war. The suburbs aren't as boring as the hipsters think?!

    So stop wingeing, writing reports, and just get on with it?

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  • It's interesting to set the comments here, and the various problems in achieving viable mass-production flows of house units, against what appears to be rather more success in the hotel sector, if the recent projects for the Travelodge budget hotel chain (who use two manufacturers) are anything to go by, And the widespread 'convenience store' type of contemporary filling station building seems to be a factory produced modular product.

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