Why modular construction works

Adam Poole and Angus Palmer reflect on the New London Architecture modular construction exhibition

The NLA, with customary sure-footedness, has seized the zeitgeist around modular housing and done a huge trawl of what is out there and then exercised a fairly rigorous editing function.

This is a tremendous effort. Our world is filling up with modular construction ideas, there are important differences between them and yet there is a tendency to treat all as the same. This was even true of a Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) Taskforce on which I [Adam] sat – everything was spoken about as if it was volumetric. The NLA effort lays them all out and starts, in a systematic way, beginning to recognise that the different types of modular favour different types of building opportunity.

Considering the housing backlog – England needs about 250,000 homes a year and we stopped building this number around the time of the 1979 election and there has been about a 100,000 a year short fall ever since – MMC has to be the way to go. Understanding how different modular techniques combine, become scalable, put us on course for cutting CO2 emissions to hit the new 2040 1.5°c average global temperature increase on pre-industrial averages and deliver the homes we want arranged in places where we want to live is the challenge. It surely starts with building an evidence base which, in turn, requires a systematic audit of what is available. The NLA have taken an important first step.

Audience gathered round the London model as Lord Rogers delivers a key note speech. Image: Buro Happold

Chairman of New London Architecture and the London Society,Peter Murray stepped, in and doubtless said the sorts of things Brokenshire might have said – the situation is desperate. And it was then on to the main act – Lord Rogers of Riverside. He gave a marvellous talk, linking post-war prefab to modern efforts by way of the 2005 Urban Task Force. This long perspective is important, as is the passion Rogers still has for the subject. It felt like a constituency coming together.

To accompany the exhibition, the NLA have produced a 165-page catalogue – ‘Factory Made Housing’ – of the exhibits. It is written by and paid for by the exhibitors (including ourselves) and so is subjective and the necessary detail is not treated in a consistent way but there is enough there for one to get one’s bearings on this emerging market.

The latest modular offering from Buro Happold is called Parametric Pre-fabrication. Our previous volumetric system, currently marketed as CIMC, was also featured in the exhibition. Our new system is more akin to industrial flat-pack, as we took the view, in looking at the modular conundrum, that flexibility of the output was the more important factor – it had to be architectural – and the high costs in setting up the supply chain had to be avoided.

We have a system, driven by a computational engine, which can be delivered by existing supply chains, works with kitchen and bathroom pods, accommodates readily available facades and can be assembled on site in perhaps half the time of conventional build. It makes sense but then so do many other systems. The industry needs evidence of modular performance to sort out which way(s) we need to go.

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