Y cube

High housing prices, growing homelessness rates and volumetric construction technology are fuelling a surge in high-quality, affordable prefabricated homes, which can be manufactured in a factory and installed on site in a fraction of the time it takes to build a traditional bricks-and-mortar property.

Not only is this new housing model providing huge benefits for the buildings’ inhabitants, whether they’ve come from a hostel or homeless shelter or are simply searching for an affordable apartment to rent, it’s a also boon for councils and wider communities. And, as the concept is proven in more and more areas, it’s only set to become more widespread.

Volumetric construction, also known as modular construction, involves the production of residential units in controlled factory conditions, which are then transported to a site either on their own or to be assembled along with others to form a single building.

As the units are manufactured in a controlled environment, the process is of high quality, quick and extremely accurate, generally producing units with great acoustics and insulation, which are far more energy-efficient, and therefore have lower utility bills, than traditional houses or flats. They can also be transported and assembled on site, in some cases in a matter of hours.
Installed in a day

Heijmans ONE, a movable, prefabricated home for one, designed for young professionals by Dutch construction firm Heijmans, can literally be installed in a day. Another example is YMCA’s soon-to-open, modular 37-unit Y:Cube housing development in Mitcham, UK, which aims to provide low cost self-contained accommodation for single people in housing need. Andrew Partridge, project architect for the scheme and associate partner at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP), hopes all units will arrive at the site from the factory within a week.

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For local authorities, the benefits of using this form of construction are enormous

"We can quickly provide quality, affordable housing with little or no grant," says Andy Redfearn, director of housing and development at YMCA London South West, who has worked closely with Partridge on the Y:Cube project. "Local authorities in England spent £500m on subsidising temporary accommodation from hostels and the private rent sector (PRS) in 2013-14. We can save them money by developing [projects like] Y:Cube as they can be made [quickly] available for people in housing need, with existing welfare benefits covering all the costs."

The closure of Architecture for Humanity’s head office in January came as a shock, even to the organisation’s own volunteers.

Properties such as this can also be moved from site to site depending on demand, one of the reasons why Lewisham Council in London decided to commission RSHP to design its Ladywell Pop-up Village, which will be fully demountable thanks to its volumetric construction technology, and could welcome residents as early as summer 2015.

"Lewisham, like all London boroughs, is facing a homelessness crisis; just two years ago we had 60 households who were homeless and we were accommodating [them] in temporary accommodation, but today that is 600 – a tenfold increase in two years, " explains Jeff Endean, housing strategy manager at Lewisham Council.

"This situation is hugely unsatisfactory for the families who have no security, cannot plan and face living in cramped conditions often for years, and it is also hugely expensive for the council."

Enter volumetric construction.

"This opens up the possibility of having the homes for homeless households now and using them for a different client group in a few years when, hopefully, the homelessness crisis will have calmed down," Endean notes. "It also opens up the possibility that we can use land that will be developed in the future, but on which there are options studies going on, to temporarily house people and then move the homes without stopping longer term development."

Moreover, such solutions could also be used to rejuvenate abandoned areas. "We hope that a bold eye-catching design for the homes, plus a range of non-housing uses on the ground floor – we already have funding confirmed for a small business "incubator" at Ladywell for instance – will help to regenerate the area in advance of the longer term regeneration, will drive up interest and footfall, and generally lift the place," Endean says.

Of course, modular units don’t have to be temporary. My Micro NY, New York’s first micro-apartment complex, which consists of 55 prefabricated units ranging from 260 to 360 square feet, was created earlier this year not to solve any temporary housing problem, but due to the changing nature of tenants’ needs in New York.

"Our project was about how households have changed over recent years as now more than half of New Yorkers are single with roommates or living alone."

"Our project was about how households have changed over recent years as now more than half of New Yorkers are single with roommates or living alone," explains Ammr Vandal, associate at nARCHITECTS and project manager for My Micro NY. "[Modular construction was chosen because] the size of each unit is suitable to an individual module, which can be transported by truck to the site. Moreover, it cuts construction time in half and there is less site disturbance, which is very important especially in dense urban conditions."

Similarly, while Heijmans ONE can be upped and moved to a new location easily, it is also designed to last 25 to 30 years and mainly aimed at young professionals looking for somewhere to call home, whose budget falls between social housing and private rent prices. "The technique of prefabricated housing helps us to deliver fast, flexible and affordable solutions for these young professionals, who are having a hard time finding a qualitative and beautiful home for themselves," says project leader Anneke Timmermans.

For Tracey Simpson-Laing, cabinet member for homes and safer communities at York Council in the UK, where a 32-unit homeless hostel is being replaced with a 39-unit hostel using an off-site modular construction system, this method really is the only way forward for local authorities.

"I have had issues with bricks and mortar construction for some time," she says. "The only way we are ever going to catch up on our backlog of housing supply is to employ off-site solutions. Moreover, using a modular construction scheme minimises disruption and maximises a site’s available space creating energy-efficient, accessible accommodation within available budgets."

Redfearn agrees, concluding: "Traditional approaches are slow and expensive. Using sites more creatively, with a different approach to design and procurement, will play an increasingly more significant role within housing development. There is still an unhealthy obsession to ‘brick and block’ housing, [when] we can achieve the same standards or better them and at a lower cost and quicker without compromising design and quality. Plus, these homes can last for life."