Mayor urged to promote factory-made houses

London should have its own design code for factory-built housing to promote the use of offsite construction in the capital, a report out today says.

The London Assembly planning committee wants mayor of London Sadiq Khan to take the lead in easing the way for developers to use system building techniques to mass-produce offsite manufactured homes (OSM) more quickly and cheaply than using traditional construction methods.

A report1 published today by the committee says that prefabrication has helped in the past and it is needed again: “OSM has played a significant role in meeting some of the country’s most severe housing challenges for more than 70 years – especially in the post-war period and in the 1960s when it helped to propel house building to the highest level ever recorded in the country. Over 425,000 homes were built in 1968 alone, and much of this was substantially manufactured offsite.

“While not a panacea, OSM will be critical in bridging the gap between the numbers of new homes the traditional construction industry can deliver in London and the level of housing need that is anticipated in the next 20 years.”

The authors acknowledge all the problems that have been associated with prefabrication in the past and even flag up the fact that the London Borough of Harrow “is still demolishing estates built in the 1960s using Resiform (an old panellised system) and is finding it challenging to present a persuasive case to tenants living in these homes that they should agree to move into homes that have not been built traditionally”.

However, they say that the quality of OSM has since improved and the mayor should use his power to promote its use. With a bit of leadership, a sceptical public can be won over, they believe.

“For many stakeholders there is an understandable degree of nervousness surrounding OSM,” the report says. “This approach to building requires a different way of doing business, of funding and delivery, and few developers, commissioners and lenders are ready to take the plunge which could help create the breakthrough to enable OSM to realise its full potential.

“While there are examples of successful and popular developments, many of these are small scale pilot projects. Nevertheless, they are beginning to change perceptions of the product. At a strategic level, more encouragement, guidance and help, covering financial, technical and organisational aspects, is needed to deliver the scale and continuity of demand that will enable OSM to demonstrate its potential.

“The mayor is in an ideal place to deliver this leadership and there are a number of steps that the mayor could take to galvanise the delivery of more OSM housing in London.”

The report recommends that London should write its own design code for prefab housing. It says: “The mayor should work towards defining and adopting a Manufactured Housing Design Code building on emerging government construction strategy thinking in the UK and also what is currently being developed in Australia. The code should be developed in conjunction with designers, manufacturers and housing providers and specify the key rules for a ‘Design for Manufacture and Assembly’ approach to London housing.”

It continues: “The design code should be branded as a mayoral ‘kite mark’, supported by suitable warranty providers to promote its use. It would drive a more standardised and aggregated demand profile which can be delivered by a range of technologies and systems and which is fully recognised by the funding and valuation sectors.”

Nicky Gavron, chair of the London Assembly planning committee, said: “This report offers a call to action and recommendations as to how offsite manufacturing’s full potential contribution to solving our housing crisis can finally be realised.”

She said: “Meeting London’s housebuilding target is a huge task and traditional construction techniques will only take us so far. Offsite Manufactured Housing is an innovative, forward-looking and exciting way to close the gap. These buildings are high quality and outstanding in terms of performance. Their construction is more environmentally-friendly than traditional construction methods and they are a far cry from their prefabricated predecessors. Few will disagree that using vacant public land to build homes quickly and with less pollution and disruption could be great news for London, tailored to demands at every price point.

“The lack of a single design standard or mass market demand has held back the sector’s growth. This is a once in a generation opportunity to work collaboratively with investors, developers and policy makers at a time where experts, central and local government are all calling for the same thing to happen. The mayor is ideally placed to respond to the report’s recommendations and call to action.”

Mark Farmer, chief executive of Cast Consultancy and author of the government commissioned Farmer Review into construction’s labour model, said: “This timely report sends an unequivocal message to the mayor of London that now is the time to show strong political leadership to establish a mainstream precision manufactured housing market in the capital. It could underpin ambitions not just for housing, but wider economic growth.”

Christy Hayes, chief executive of OSM developer Tide Construction, said: “This is an extremely welcome report that makes some excellent recommendations for driving demand in offsite construction. The single most important thing needed for companies investing in OSM housing is certainty of demand. If, by becoming a market maker, the mayor can drive continuous growing demand for factory-built homes, we will see significant investment come in to this space which can only be good for everyone.”

1. Designed, sealed, delivered: The contribution of offsite manufactured homes to solving London’s housing crisis

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