Are prefabricated homes the answer to satisfying the urgent need for increased social housing? The government manifesto promises 300,000 new ‘social housing’ homes per year by the mid-2020’s and aiming for 1 million in the next 5 years.

This is to be applauded, however, can such a target be achieved using traditional building methods and taking in to account the current chaos involving the building sector brought about by the onset of COVID-19 earlier in the year?

Are prefabricated/modular homes, therefore, the possible answer to help satisfy this manifesto promise?

Firstly, some history.

Prefabricated housing is not new. For those of us of a certain age, we remember such prefabricated homes or ‘prefabs’ as they became fondly known being introduced by the government immediately at the end of World War 2 to urgently house returning military personnel from poorer backgrounds at economic rents, a lot of whom had lost their homes to wartime bombing. Although intended as temporary accommodation, lasting no more than a decade or so, some were occupied 70 years on!

Whilst considered in some quarters as being shoddily manufactured prefabs did, nevertheless, provide very comfortable housing with, something unheard of in poorer households, fitted bathrooms and kitchens and hot water on tap with even a small garden. Importantly, such housing helped foster a long-lasting community spirit. What a contrast to how a lot of returning armed forces personnel used to live; often in cramped, unhygienic accommodation and having to use a toilet ‘down the back yard’ (if they were lucky to have even that and not having to share common latrines with other families).

For example, my wife lived in a prefab for the first 14 and very happy years of her life. When her parents were forced to move to another home due to a rebuilding project, her mother threatened to divorce her dad if they left! They moved but they did not divorce! For myself coming from a 2 up 2 down home, visits to relatives living in a prefab were an adventure to look forward to and savour.

So, what of the present and the future if incorporating prefabrication into the government’s house building programme?

It is obvious to this writer that building targets will not be reached without the use of innovative building methods and, in particular, taking on board the great strides made since the 2nd World War in the manufacture of prefabricated buildings.

Now better known as ‘modular housing’ such manufacturing techniques can allow for a home to be
erected in less than a week and in delivering completed houses directly to a sites does away with a
lot of subcontracting that often slows up construction.

Britain currently is way behind other nations using modular techniques, such as Germany, Sweden and Japan where modular constructions are much more prominent, with Britain building only around 10,000 modular homes a year.
This, happily, is changing, as evidenced for instance with the recent announcement from the major insurance group, Legal & General. They have secured planning consent to build one of Britain’s largest housing projects comprising 154 modular homes in Selby North Yorkshire.

Being built at L&G’s own factory near Leeds, each housing unit’s walls, floors and ceilings are to be manufactured using the factory’s four giant computer-operated cutting and milling machines. The finished modules will be wired, plumbed, decorated, carpeted and fitted out with bathrooms and kitchens (sound familiar?). These modular homes can be either single or of several homes being joined. The beauty of this type of construction is in the ability to change internal rooms layout prior to erection, rather than to have boring ‘all the same’ houses. Also, apart from the cost-saving element of this type of building, they incorporate the latest energy-saving initiatives; often not
found in modern traditionally constructed housing.

As further evidence of the housing sector moving further towards modular homes construction, Britain’s biggest housing associations and investors in modular housing are looking towards the government to co-fund an initiative known as “homes for heroes”. This initiative is aimed at providing 100,000 homes (within the government’s 300,000 homes target) for key workers on the front line in the fight against COVID-19. Housing associations behind this proposed scheme include London & Quadrant and Peabody, which manages 66,000 homes in the south east, L&G and Tophat, a modular housing developer backed by Goldman Sachs.

In summary, this appears to be an exciting opportunity to embrace the major advances made in prefabricated/modular homes construction and thus enabling the provision of much, much more sorely needed and aesthetically pleasing social housing in an economic, energy saving manner and much more quickly than if relying mainly on time consuming and more costly traditional building methods.

Guest post by Terence Malone.