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London’s Housing Crisis: A guide on how to eat an elephant (part three)

London’s Housing Crisis: A guide on how to eat an elephant (part three)

January 2018

A new year encourages us all to reflect, assess and, where necessary, improve. This is true in both our personal and professional lives. It is also applicable to industry, and none more so than the UK housebuilding industry.

In order to implement positive action to solve London’s housing crisis, the construction industry (and policy makers, as discussed in part two of this blog), must reflect, assess and improve on the methods and materials currently used by the majority of house builders across the country, and move towards the circular economy; namely, ensuring that industries design goods and materials that can be broken down and reused or recycled.

This has been coined as the ‘cradle to cradle’ approach by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, which presents a framework to ensure materials and products are designed to be reused or recycled.

Stuck in the Middle-Ages

In simple terms, our approach to building is the same as it was when the Romans inhabited the country. We use bricks and mortar, the work is highly labour intensive and the use of raw materials is amongst the highest in any single industry, according to a specialist industry report by the World Economic Forum.

On top of that, when a building comes to the end of its life it is knocked down and the majority of materials go directly to landfill. This is known as the ‘take, make and waste’ model.

This approach is not sustainable, and there has been significant and vital research into how we use materials, and how we can improve and adapt. According to The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, ‘resources are extracted from the Earth for production and consumption on a one-way track’ – but as demand for housing is increasing exponentially it’s clear that we’re running out of time for a transition from a bricks and mortar approach to one of circular economic thinking.

To succeed, we must think differently and perform differently when it comes to design and construction. It is happening – there are excellent examples of Offsite Manufactured (OSM) homes worldwide, and it’s gaining momentum, however is still not in the mainstream – and that’s the key issue.

Leaving fewer footprints

If we don’t start building houses using future-proofed materials we are simply creating more waste for landfill. In contrast to bricks and mortar, most OSM homes are designed to be constructed and deconstructed easily so they can be moved and rebuilt to flex with the needs of the homeowner. The materials are reusable or recyclable, helping to stem the flow of non-renewable resources.

Globally, we far exceed our maximum annual resource – on 2nd August 2017, we reached our limit. Known as Earth Overshoot Day and created by Mattias Wagernagel, it marks the date ‘when humanity has exhausted nature’s budget for the year’ and is a stark truth to accept. But accept it we must!

Investment in skills and training is needed now

As well as materials, we must also consider the shortage of skills in the construction industry. An ageing workforce, and the need for a more diverse range of skills has resulted in an imminently under-equipped workforce, especially if we are to meet the government’s goal of 300,000 new homes per year by 2020.

In a 2017 report, the London Assembly supports this and explains: ‘In the short to medium term, London’s construction industry is facing the need to deliver increased supply in the face of future labour shortages as the construction sector ages, and rising costs of materials…a more positive future for house-building in London is emerging in the form of the potential of offsite manufactured housing.’

Those skills are needed now, and to future-proof our housing we must also future-proof the construction industry’s workforce. It makes sense for the UK government to invest in this vital training as part of their pledge to build a sustainable future for the housing market.

It is also important that manufacturers, construction companies and associated stakeholders join together to collaboratively invest in, and deliver, appropriate, quality training for our future housing needs.

The perfect circle

The way we build needs to change. We must start to build buildings in a way that we can deconstruct them – strip them of all the separate elements, and reuse or recycle those elements. Think of it like Meccano or Lego: connecting and attaching materials together to create a structure, rather than gluing them permanently with material such as cement.

A report by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) showed that 50% of construction industry clients expect to see offsite construction increase in the next five years; 42% of construction employers with more than 100 employees expect to use offsite methods in the next five years. However, offsite construction currently accounts for just 10% of industry output.

The technology to make this happen exists now – the QED developments Marston Court and Meath Court, Hope Gardens in Acton, London, are good examples of OSM housing that can be replicated and delivered in volume. When needed, it can be deconstructed and its component parts can be reused to become part of a new structure or structures at a new location.

Perception of OSM homes must also shift. The pre-fab constructions that rebuilt post-war Britain are not comparable to impressive, creative and secure architecture that is currently being built all over the world. Again, public sector backing and introducing future-proof housing into the mainstream is key to this challenge.

Finally, we must proactively equip the industry with the tools and means to deliver high-quality, specialist training to its workforce. This will take investment from, and collaboration of, the government and those involved in every stage of the construction process.

Practical steps forward:

  • Government to invest in OSM housing pilot schemes
  • Proactively raise awareness and understanding of OSM housing, and the opportunity and benefits it provides
  • Collaboration between public sector and construction industry to encourage and implement modular building and share best practise
  • Honest communication about the state of resources and skills in order to make real, positive change
  • Start today

QED’s vision is one of a moveable, diverse and sustainable built environment. We are delivering this by bringing brownfield land back into productive use; with our buildings routinely constructed from a kit of re-usable component parts. Our recent projects include Hope Gardens and Marston Court in Ealing.

Renewing the British dream or fantasy?