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Better late than never

Housing emerges blinking from the Victorian era!

In 1927, architects’ architect, Le Corbusier, published his book Vers Une Architecture (Towards an Architecture). In it he set out his theories of modern design and, famously, described a house as ‘a machine for living in’. What he meant by this was that houses, as well as being the more emotive ‘home’, where we bring up families, live, love, laugh and deal with life’s darker moments, should be thoroughly well designed to support all of the day to day functions of modern life.

The book also included a five point manifesto, many elements of which, such as raising buildings up on piloti (slender columns) to create space beneath, were widely adopted and formed a key part of what we now look back on, with some degree of horror, as 1960’s brutalist architecture and failed sink estates. Other elements, such as creating secluded spaces on rooftops for nude sunbathing didn’t catch on so widely. He was at the vanguard of a profound change in architecture and large scale housing. Whilst, with hindsight, many of his ideas could work today with better technology and management, there is no doubt that the brave new world it ushered in proved to be somewhat dystopian and led to a generation’s worth of problematic housing estates.

It is clear that much of what we see in the current market for new build housing is the reaction to these failures of housing development, especially in social housing, in the 1960’s and 70’s. Part of this is the result of a failure in planning and execution, creating insecure, threatening and unloved spaces, part from a failure to manage properties and estates effectively and part from a failure of building technology resulting in cold and damp homes that were not fit for long-term occupation.

Consequently, volume housing swung towards highly conservative traditional styles and construction techniques. The reality is that most homes today are still built largely as they were in Victorian times (although the craftsmanship is inferior) with the addition only of some insulation and better windows. You can imagine a Victorian carpenter or bricklayer being able to walk straight on to a modern building site and fitting straight in (although they would probably be aghast at the levels of PPE and health and safety requirements, which is one area that we have made notable improvements in). You cannot imagine a Victorian blacksmith or wheelwright walking into a car factory and having the faintest idea what they were faced with.

Housing schemes are still being delivered by the UK’s largest housebuilders and the best that they could boast from an environmental perspective was that they were built to building regulations standards, the homes were heated by gas boilers and radiators and the kitchens were fitted with gas hobs.

Finally, however, the tide seems to be turning. And not before time.

In the next couple of weeks, we will start on site with a scheme of six zero carbon homes at Sittingbourne, in Kent. Whilst they are recognisably houses (they haven’t sprouted windmills and don’t go out of their way to shout about their eco credentials), that is where the similarity with current traditionally built houses ends.

They are built using highly insulated timber SIPs (Structurally Insulated Panels), are incredibly air tight and are powered solely by electricity. The electricity generated by the solar panels on the roof exceeds the needs of the house. These houses, built in partnership with NetZero Buildings, are assembled in their factory near Cambridge and the quality of the product and finishes is beyond reproach. Steve Murphy, their CEO, tells an interesting story about air tightness. Current regulations allow a house to leak a certain amount of air. In the aggregate, this is equivalent to having a hole in the external wall of your house the size of a sheet of A4 paper. By contrast, the equivalent for our homes is a hole the size of a postage stamp!

It is almost unfair to compare the quality of a product assembled in a warm and dry factory with one built putting one brick or block on top of another in the middle of a muddy building site. It is little wonder that news channels are filled with stories of poor people who, having bought the home of their dreams, find that they are riddled with hundreds of defects, frequently leaving their homes uninhabitable.

The logic for continuing with traditional construction techniques is eroding day by day. Whilst this was initially a reaction to failures when new technologies and techniques were introduced in the past, the same cannot be said now where modern systems are demonstrably superior to what came previously.

There is no doubt that today, the market for off-site manufacture or MMC (Modern methods of Construction) is still very much in its infancy. A range of different systems and approaches exist, as too do differing degrees of pre-assembly and site work.

There is also no doubt that the only way we can get even remotely close to delivering 300,000 houses per year, let alone 300,000 high quality, zero carbon homes, is to nurture and support this pioneering group of manufacturers.

Our next scheme will be 33 fully affordable zero carbon homes (more details on which in another piece). These will be built with a different manufacturer using a very different system and we at Public Sector Plc look forward to learning from these schemes to improve and refine our approach. Our role in both has been to find a site, work up a scheme, put in place a funding/exit strategy, secure planning permission, design and tender all of the external and groundworks separately and bring in an MMC provider to deliver the homes on the site we have prepared.

On reflection, our role on these schemes is actually to be the change that we want to see in the industry and to lead from the front. That isn’t always easy or comfortable, but it sure is the right thing to do.

We truly cannot wait to share with the world the progress of these schemes and to showcase the finished product.