Modern methods of construction & communities – learning from history and adversity

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This week’s final episode of the brilliant “A House Through Time” was particularly striking. Aside from the fantastic storytelling and heart-wrenching historical analysis, it showed the juxtaposition of a solid traditional home, No.10 Guinea Street, against the images from a 1960’s television broadcast. This promoted the benefits of social housing delivered by new methods of construction, where “a 13 storey building was put up in only 18 weeks!”. 

There is something to be learned from history, both in terms of the ability to deliver development at pace and also the resultant mistakes.  Some blocks of flats are still welcoming environments for families and communities today, whilst many others are failing to meet residents’ needs in terms of maintenance, safety, and access to quality space. 

As we begin to emerge from lockdown, in whatever form that may take, we have an element of choice in whether to seize the opportunities presented. There is a growing sense that the power of collaboration can be turned into an opportunity to rethink how we deliver homes better – homes that are more resilient and can provide genuinely mixed and balanced communities.

On the face of it, modular home production seems to have been less affected by Covid-19 (at least in the early part of lockdown). Modular factories are controlled environments where safer distancing is easier to manage. Modular construction is also far less labour intensive than traditional methods, and factory labour also tends to be ‘on the books’ and therefore less susceptible to uncertainties.

Modular homes, of course, aren’t one uniform ‘entity’. They aren’t all high intensity factory driven or focused solely on larger development sites – albeit there is an important role for Modern Methods of Construction in speeding up delivery and improving the housing mix on bigger sites. The range of possibilities is extraordinary in type and purpose, and perhaps particularly so in a community-led context: rooftop eco homes that make better use of existing space by building upwards; homes that form co-living communities with well-considered shared facilities; innovative solutions for small complex sites such as garage plots and back-land car parks; homes to enable relatives to remain living alongside their families; move-on homes for people who have been homeless; and even, collaborative inter-skill developments where young people, students and key workers can live together and learn from each other to achieve their goals and positively contribute to their community. The list goes on. 

For an increasingly impassioned and motivated community-led sector that is enabled to access resources and funding, there is scope to deliver a lasting legacy for the sector. One that will be an effective and ultimately financially self-sustaining body of expertise within the house building industry. But, the planning frameworks that should recognise and enable the social benefit that is derived from community-led development, modular or otherwise, is rarely in step with innovation – sometimes leaving local-level political forces in the driving seat. For enlightened proactive local authorities (like Bristol City), the housing and climate crisis, and indeed the current pandemic, is a powerful opportunity to do things differently. It’s a chance for bringing together industry leaders, working with local government, and engaging the public to bring healthy and resilient communities to the forefront of the conversation on housing. 

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