TV architect George Clarke spoke at a recent event on the urgent need to innovate in housebuilding to deliver good quality at the same time as the numbers. At the Mitsubishi Electric-staged event Clarke provocatively said “there’s no point building 300,000 crap houses.” Behind the sardonic humour he was alluding to the serious risk of sacrificing quality in the drive to build as many houses as possible, as fast as possible.
He is calling for “systematic change on a number of levels” to ensure the industry builds sustainable, good quality mainstream housing. However squaring that with the “numbers game” that Clarke says some of the industry has now become, is hard to do.
The Centre for Policy Studies’ revelation that the current decade, averaging 130,000 per year, will show the poorest levels of UK housebuilding since the Second World War is disappointing of course. In the context of the 300,000 target, it presents an even bigger challenge, despite recent acceleration in build-outs of sites.
Prefab housing is very, very different from its much derided mid-20th century precursors, and is being seen as the great white hope to deliver the fast, clean, high quality construction needed, in the time available. Others have questioned why we actually build houses in fields, when we build cars in factories, and it’s becoming a mainstream debate.
This is a massive challenge to mainstream housebuilding however, an attack on their modus operandi which will be prohibitive for some. It also means problems for wet trades like plasterers – there will be a need to reincorporate their skills at the factory level if modular housing truly goes mainstream.
It’s about more than the method; George Clarke’s ideas of changing Regs so everyone has an air source heat pump and triple glazing is far fetched. However, his idea that housebuilders can and should invest more in R&D to discover more innovative ideas on the best solutions for energy efficient, healthy and aesthetically appropriate housing, is more realistic.
As he also alludes, however, something needs to be done to subsidise greener developments, for example to offset land cost. He admits that everyone in the industry needs to buy into new standards to put downward pressure on prices.
The idea that housebuilders should incur costs innovating for its own sake will be met with raised eyebrows; if there’s no clear customer demand, it’s unlikely to happen. The traction, probably via incentives, has to be there for more expensive, good quality, probably modular housing across the market. In this way maybe one day we will see millions buying in, in the same way many people now invest in good quality hybrid cars.