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Andrew Larner: The quality and design of factory build homes can ease the housing crisis

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The need for homes at rents and prices that people can afford isn’t a new problem, but it is one that increases in importance. 

Figures released in January found the number of local authority‐owned homes in England decreased by 0.7% to 1.6 million by April 2017 while 1.16 million households were on local authority waiting lists.

So where is the innovation and how do we collaborate to maximise its impact? One part of the solution is emerging in the form of factory build housing. At iESE we have been tracking this market for several years. The first time I saw the potential of factory build was in Hull where, in a clean and dry environment, complete rooms were being produced with all electrics, plumbing, fixtures, fittings and flooring in place. You knew to the minute when the completed room would leave the factory. These complete rooms then slotted together before a roof was placed on top, and the property was ready to occupy.

Another advantage is that the physical construction of a factory‐assembled house needs less space. With a prefabricated house built in a factory setting, once the foundation has been created, the rooms can be lowered into the site by a crane and bolted together; this means that you can use plots which would not traditionally be viable.

On the other hand, there are challenges for factory build, particularly with social rents. At this year’s District Councils’ Network conference in an excellent session on housing I was struck by a throwaway comment comparing factory build housing to a ‘kit car’ – reminding me that the one challenge of tapping into this market is reputation.

The first time I visited factory build I saw the company’s first house which narrowly missed passive house standard. This year I visited an estate built by the same company. Residents came out to show me around their homes and they were really ‘wowed’ by the quality. It was truly superb, not only the design but the construction quality too. Unlike the 10 years for traditional build, these houses came with a 90‐year guarantee ‐ now that is confidence!

But what about building affordably for social rent? Whilst factory build has a more predictable price, it isn’t always the lowest cost solution. Our costs analysis shows regional variations. However, factory‐built housing becomes really cost‐effective when there is a more limited range of designs. This makes assembly efficient and achieves the volume that will deliver on price. So, we as a sector are going to have to come together and help specify those designs and, if we do, we will get more superb quality developments. If you are interested in collaborating on this then please get in touch.

Dr Andrew Larner, chief executive, iESE

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