A template for an offsite housing strategy
Jason Ruddle, managing director of Elecosoft, analyses the London Housing Strategy and the London Assembly’s report into housing in the capital.
Things are moving fast in housing. Or, at least, in the policy development arena that focuses on the housing challenge. After a flurry of activity from national policymakers in January this year, with the publication of the Housing White Paper, it seems that the focus has turned to London.
The draft London Housing Strategy, published on 6 September, follows hard on the heels of a report from the London Assembly. It called on the London mayor to actively encourage the use of offsite modular (OSM) construction, to facilitate delivery of new housing stock.
“Designed, sealed, delivered” argued that, with offsite manufactured housing quality and precision manufacturing improvements, coupled with the benefits of BIM in designing for manufacturing, it is time for prefab to be put to work. London, it is argued, is the ideal place to leverage new OSM approaches, since it is so critical to “sweat” all available land assets to meet the needs.
Perhaps due to its concurrent development timeline, Assembly members may be a little underwhelmed by the degree to which OSM or precision manufacturing are incorporated, treated rather as an afterthought to the construction skills gap.
The ongoing focus on housing is welcome – the need is undeniable. It is not a stretch to consider London as a microcosm of the UK’s construction challenge. Get it right here, at scale, where population density is extreme, and you could create a template for major cities across the nation.
How can this be done, in reality? The mayor believes the whole process must pivot to affordability. We disagree: in our view affordability is important, of course, but the process must pivot to deliverability first.
Only then is it possible for affordable homes to reach Londoners. In addition to driving down cost, the entire system must be re-geared to emphasise increased efficiency and speed in the actual build stage.
The Assembly is right, in that that offsite manufacturing plays a significant role. Physically accelerating builds, by enabling manufacturing to happen concurrently with groundworks, can shave months off a timeline, as well as benefit standardisation and quality control. Yet, it is also critical that contractors use every advantage that digital technology offers.
Technology for collaboration and efficiency is critical at all stages, from inception to completion, and sits at the heart of BIM. They must embrace tools designed to increase project efficiency, to address the late delivery and overspend that is common in public sector projects.
Sadiq Khan has opened the door, but strategy must focus on delivery
Accelerated delivery depends on avoidance of delay, too and that requires the use of the right tools to plan problem scenarios, and design “what-if” options to ensure completion is never compromised.
In other words, every stage must be streamlined, as well as offsite embraced, not just to deliver at pace, but to compensate for today’s skills gap. Addressing that gap is key, but it cannot be done fast enough to deliver the mayor’s targeted 90,000 home starts by 2021.
That alone is a vast initiative, but the bigger challenge will be in ensuring that those homes are delivered, from the ground up, as fast as possible. We must address the delivery challenge, or Londoners won’t see new home supplies until 2025 or beyond – and that’s simply too long.
The London Housing Strategy issues a call to action for “all organisations that have a role to play”, yet, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to consider the construction sector itself, just councils, private developers, housing associations and the government.
The London Assembly similarly underplayed its role, almost completely failing to address the practical delivery aspect of deploying pre-fabricated modules.
Sadiq Khan has opened the door for inputs. This is what we would say to him: the solution must involve those involved in delivery, not only in development and planning. The London Housing Strategy requires a dedicated delivery section.
In addition to the supply of land, enabling infrastructure, and diversifying to give opportunity to smaller builders, there must be serious consideration about how to engage the construction industry.
This includes designers and manufacturers who will be delivering BIM-ready, OSM elements, major contractors who will be managing the sites, contractors who will be placing brick on brick, and everyone else involved making the homes happen in reality, rather than in theory – all of whom need both encouragement, incentive, support and the right tools to do everything at accelerated pace.