Modular developments in Manchester and Liverpool are energy efficient and built in quick time, but can they spark national interest?
Building homes typically requires a lot of technical know-how, money and patience. Bill Jennings of JDA Architects thinks he is in the process of changing this. In collaborating with the funder, Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), the manufacturer Bowsall, and a number of housing association and delivery partners, JDA Architects are developing a house-building framework as a way of providing an alternative to current housing models, and one which is hoped could help in solving the problem of housing shortages.
This isn't the first time that off-the-shelf homes have been hailed as the solution however. Anyone of a certain age remembers "prefabs", "temporary" replacements for bomb-damaged homes, still in evidence across the country thanks to their enduring popularity. And, while modular housing for the masses is common in Australia, the United States and Germany, British examples have mainly been limited to one-off, self-build projects.
Shipped to site by lorry, JDA are creating mass produced factory-built homes – or ‘ready-to-live-in boxes which click together to form a traditional looking house. Built off-site, these homes come fully kitted out with every part of a traditional home already inside – connections for power and water are installed, a fully fitted kitchen and bathroom in place, walls painted and plastered and even the carpet and doors are in situ. Jennings explained that the combination of a modular system and a formula for rapid builds means a house can be put together in a matter of days rather months.
With Sir Howard Bernstein, former chief executive of Manchester City Council, as an advocate and supporter of these projects, JDA are now part of a small but growing number of organisations looking to change the way homes are built through the adoption of off-site – also known as modular construction or prefab homes. From businesses to policymakers, there is budding interest in off-site-built housing as a possible solution to the UK’s critical housing shortage.
Crushing the build time of traditional house construction, the modular home itself is built in a factory while foundations are being laid on site. Certainty of build costs, materials, delivery and reduced risk of weather delay are already making these homes attractive. Developers are citing the advantages of the reduced requirement for scarce skilled labour, fewer construction accidents and more consistent quality of build compared to traditional construction. However the challenge for modular housing is going to be volume – can manufacturers get the support and financing to scale up their operations quickly to make the process and the end product cheaper than a traditional build?
So is now the time for off-site construction to hit the mainstream?
Jennings thinks so, saying production line precision means their homes can hit the housing demand without compromising on quality. However, the cost savings and efficiencies will only be driven forward if the service providers can meet the needs of the manufacturers. Jennings commented that on a previous project 33 of their units stood empty for 3 months awaiting gas, water and electric connections and so more dynamic support frameworks are needed from the all sectors of the industry.
Modular housing might not set property pulses racing, but the latest generation of pod-like homes is hoping to inspire all those concerned with sustainability and affordability.
“Great buildings have never just happened. They are conceived, designed, developed and built by people of commitment and vision”
– David Russell, Property Alliance Group.
David Russell, CEO of Property Alliance Group and one of the most prolific and ambitious property developers in the North West, talked through his remarkable career, and endorsed Jennings’ vision of modular housing as “the future”.
One of nine children, David Russell started out as a carpenter, spent a while on a market stall, and made his first million before he was 30. The Russell property empire grew by accident as much as design. Russell spent the 1980s building up and then selling the Farouche Kitchens business. As a carpenter he knew how to make kitchens – and he quickly learned how to sell them. Russell built up a 750-strong team and became one of the pioneers of direct sales. With time served in his trade, the Rochdale-born property tycoon sold the business for £312m and, by his own admission, went on a bit of a spree, jetting off on a 3 year round the world sabbatical.
After having decided to make Manchester his home once again, he fell into property. “If you've got lots of money and no qualifications you just drift towards property. It's the only thing open to you. And with a background in building I thought I could bring a fresh approach to it,” he says.
With the help of Ian Barlow – a school friend who'd followed him through the Farouche episode – Russell set up his property business starting with warehouses and mills. The tactic was to make opportunities rather than sit and wait for them to land in his lap.
Today the Russell portfolio is centred around Manchester and the North West but with a presence in many other towns and cities throughout the UK. With over 27 years of profitable performance the group has completed over £500m of transactions and the empire spans the industrial, hotels, leisure, office and residential sector, valued at over £260m
Having made his millions, Russell isn’t sitting back and letting family members take the helm – still heavily involved in the business, David is still looking at sites to buy and develop and sees opportunity in the rental sector and following that, first-time buyer homes. Linking back to modular housing, those modern, affordable prefabs could be just the ticket for young professionals and young families to get onto the property train.
The most important asset in business
Your building? Your machines and other capital infrastructure? The money in the bank? None of those are ticking Russell’s boxes. A firm believer in an ‘alliance’ there was a great emphasis placed on the relationships built along the way – whether those be with staff, customers, suppliers or others in the supply chain – this social capital is more important to Russell than bricks and mortar. Understanding where clients are coming from and engaging with the people involved in the process of a build helps Russell, and Property Alliance Group, get out as much as they put in.
Irwin Mitchell LLP