If we were to fast-forward 20 years to take a look at UK housing, what might we see? For some, the very words ‘the future of housing’ conjure up mental images of the hi-tech architecture of Blade Runner and homes built by robots. For others, the expectation is of something much more traditional in look and feel, albeit smart-enabled and hiding multiple innovations under its skin.
Of course, the current reality is that, while some housing architects, self-builders and developers have delivered some incredible one-off projects, the UK’s mainstream housing supply is still heavily dominated by volume housebuilders and larger developers.
The most common private sector business model is based primarily upon the economics of land values, and a management system that prizes low risk consistency and repeatability. It’s all about placing the lowest possible demands on a moveable workforce to deliver a very well-understood, non-challenging new homes style that most customers generally like or think is good enough. It’s hardly a culture for innovation.
But take another look.
Driven by severe shortages in cheap labour, almost every volume housebuilder in the country is now exploring new methods of construction, and many have live research or pilot projects testing new manufacturing methods and offsite technologies. New joint ventures are emerging, and local authorities are re-entering the housebuilding industry with pioneering projects, providing homes for those most in need while raising capital through market sale, meaning more to invest in future projects. Costs is important, but so is quality. Council housing is back, and in a good way.
Pre-manufacturing, precision manufacturing, modern methods of construction or offsite construction – whatever you choose to call it, this is the agenda du jour. The Government has set ambitious targets for housebuilding and the Construction Sector Deal pushes the offsite agenda yet further. It will lead to major changes over the next 20 years.
The offsite sector uses a broad spectrum of materials and technologies including highly energy efficient timber, lightweight steel, precast concrete and hybrid manufactured building technologies, all designed to create new solutions and speed up construction.
Applications such as cross laminated timber (CLT) and timber frame are often favoured in these factory-led approaches to housing. Tellingly, all of the organisations involved with the newly-launched Offsite Solutions Scotland build with timber, and Stewart Milne is the first timber engineering manufacturer of many expected to contribute to a BIM library with floor, walls and roof products now created as BIM objects.
It’s not just the structural fabric or facades of a building that are changing. Interiors are being pre-manufactured offsite too, with volumetric kitchen and bathroom ‘pods’ designed using BIM to fit an exact space, reducing waste and making installation safer and easier.
Digital technology is also lending a hand to the flexibility of building design – a concept most recently explored by Cree's LifeCycle Tower (LCT ONE). Built without load bearing walls, the building is completely adaptable on the inside. A hotel can become an apartment block and then an office, then revert back to a hotel. LCT ONE also uses technology to measure the performance data of the products used, with a preference for timber as a natural and renewable source.
We can also see changes coming through an increase in community-led housing, and a greater emphasis on health, wellbeing and high quality placemaking. According to housing design experts, all the key health-related elements such as sunlight, well landscaped open spaces, thermal stability, good ventilation and accessibility are increasingly making their way into the broader housing market.
To see recent examples of this, look no further than last month’s Housing Design Awards winners.
The overall winner was the Bourne Estate, a shining example of how a housing architect and a local authority (in this case, Matthew Lloyd Architects and Camden Council) worked together to rejuvenate an Edwardian council estate, delivering new high-quality flats which are enriched by highly effective communal spaces.
Though a contentious process at times, a genuine consultation with existing residents gave them a say in the look, use and feel of the building. So while communal spaces in blocks of flats are often unsociable and dingy spaces, especially for social housing, that isn’t the case with the Bourne Estate which is filled with intricate design features including oak slatted ceilings and solid dark timber doors that give the area warmth.
Similarly, AHMM’s winning project Signal Townhouses has created a real community feel. Built on brownfield land, the first phase of the site has delivered 16 three-storey homes around a courtyard, bringing the community together while also allowing privacy. The back-to-back homes are spacious and full of light.
Many projects in the Housing Design Awards encompass this sort of quality, community living and innovative design, and they also prioritise health and wellbeing to provide the very best living accommodation.
All of these examples also point to changing expectations about the design and build quality of UK housing.
In July 2018 at the Policy Exchange, UK housing minister James Brokenshire MP gave a speech on housing and how the drive for quantity should not affect quality. Brokenshire described the future of housing as “high-quality, energy efficient and manufacturing-led.”
Post-Grenfell, revisions to Building Regulations and improvements to the system of checks and controls on building standards are likely to start affecting the new home building sector very soon. Under the watchful scrutiny of the APPG for Excellence in the Built Environment and other parliamentary groups, pressure will continue to be put on housebuilders to deliver more homes, faster, with fewer defects and much improved after-sales service. The hope is for a much more customer-centric housing market in the future.
But in case you are worried these areas of change all just sound a bit too low-tech for the future, take heart.
Any diehard Back to the Future II fan will remember Marty getting a video call via his TV from his boss, delivering the news that he was fired. In 1989 this seemed like a crazy concept, but smart technology like this has been around for several years now and more of it is moving from the office into our homes.
Smart technology is already creating a flourishing new market for apps and housing features that serve our needs for energy saving, security, communications and entertainment. This is an industry that’s booming and not too far into the future it’s likely that most new homes will incorporate data analysis tools to allow a home to respond fully to the behaviour of its inhabitants.
Read our interview with Hubert Rhomberg on Construction 4.0
Who will build our future homes? David Birkbeck on lessons learned from this year's Housing Design Awards.
Image: Envelope Architects www.orbitalhousing.com