Richard Hyams of astudio describes how architects can use modular offsite construction to deliver good quality housing schemes with rich community benefits
The adoption of modular construction techniques is rapidly accelerating in the UK. Policymakers have realised the benefits of construction techniques that are up to three times quicker than more traditional construction methods, with projects delivered at a fraction of the cost. In fact, the trend towards using modular building techniques has gained so much momentum that even the Treasury is now recommending a far wider use of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) as part of its £600bn rollout of infrastructure projects over the next decade.
Given the speed at which construction can be carried out and the scale of the housing crisis in the UK, it will surely not be long before increased government support for modular construction becomes widespread. Local and national government now spend £2m per day on temporary accommodation for the over 77,000 homeless households under local authority care. MMC construction techniques offer an opportunity to reduce this financial burden, while also providing high quality, zero-carbon accommodation for a great many vulnerable families. As a whole, the construction industry is under significant cost pressure. Construction is becoming more expensive, whether that’s in terms of resources, skills or materials – there are shortages everywhere. Just last year there was a brick shortage, for example. Until recently there had been reluctance among architects towards MMC because many believed it limited creativity, skill and design. There are, however, a myriad ways to use modular – from big volume builds right down to smaller projects – that require the architect to be more agile than ever before, partly because they are using bigger components. Architects have begun to realise that working with the larger building elements used in modular design actually demands more of them, not less. The growth in MMC is also being driven by the need to minimise the resources used, as well as deliver inspired, delightful spaces.
This can be seen in East Wick and Sweetwater; two developments that astudio was involved with in east London. The housing schemes had six different architects designing different buildings to create a rich atmosphere. There were also very stringent fabric performance targets, so the facades had to perform very well, and this was before internal heating and energy systems were even considered. This meant ensuring the form and orientation were right as well as ensuring the buildings had a good air tightness level. One of the greatest challenges this project presented was the need to maximise daylight while ensuring the building didn’t overheat in the summer or become too cold in the winter. Working with an environmental engineer in house brings significant advantages. From the first design it is possible to have a strategy for limiting carbon and energy use. Orientation, form and materials are all-important and, increasingly, must be energy efficient, from the start. So it is vital to embed environmental considerations in your practice from the start – bringing expertise in-house enables the architect to challenge engineers and contractors. Technology is also vital. It helps architects understand the macro and micro scale impact of their designs, whether looking at new buildings or interventions into old structures. It allows them to test the design to ensure what we are building will work. A new development, Sugden Way in Barking, will consist of a series of council flats and is targeted to be complete in just 60 weeks – cutting the 24-30 month time frame of traditional construction practices on this scale in half and saving the council vital resources.
The homes are supplied on a turnkey standardised production basis, where costs are minimised through bulk purchasing of materials and components, while speeding up the production process and reducing the potential for defects during build. The homes are built using a light steel volumetric modular construction method with 90 per cent of the work completed in a factory. This includes multiple fixtures, fittings and cladding options, both internally and externally, enabling each building to have a distinctive look and feel. In the case of Sugden Way, a full brick skin is applied rather than brick slips to make it durable. In order to meet housing association requirements, the design needs be robust both in terms of the materials, but also the fixture and fittings as everything have to stand the test of time. In addition, the design is zero carbon. The turnkey standardised production basis is a new way of providing local authorities with homes they need. It means companies involved in modular construction becoming suppliers of high quality truly affordable homes. Such a method of construction means everything is taken care of, from the design of the homes to securing the planning permission, as well as actually building the properties. It is clear the interest in modular has increased. London’s City Hall has said that it is willing to give more funding to modular development, and Homes England has also provided more support with additional funding for the sector.
This is helping to bring manufacturers and developers closer together. But challenges remain around design. The design of each modular development at present must meet the needs of each manufacturer because they each have their own way of building. If modern methods of construction are to become mainstream in the UK, massive industry standardisation is required. Industry collaboration is key.
Richard Hyams is the founder and director of astudio