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04 August 2020

The Need for Speed - is Modular Construction the answer?

From the Beatles to James Bond, Tower Blocks to Modular Construction, this article highlights some of the issues we encountered in the 1950s and 1960s which we must not repeat today if we are to build long lasting viable housing projects. 

Post-War Britain

The 1950s and 1960s saw some iconic events which arguably shaped the future of the UK. There was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. We saw the birth of rock and roll with Bill Haley and the Comets, later with Cliff Richard and then the Beatles and many others. There was the Cold War. The Profumo Affair. Mary Quant’s creation of the mini-skirt. England winning the world cup. It was an important time for civil rights movements both in the USA and the UK. But a large part of the 1950s and 1960s was rebuilding post-war Britain. This was the emergence of tower blocks.

With German aerial bombings during the Second World War many buildings were destroyed and required replacement. Built next to public open spaces, tower blocks were seen as a solution, replacing overcrowded terraced housing. They provided larger rooms with fantastic views.

At the time, tower blocks were welcomed as they brought together a society which had been hit so hard economically and mentally by the Second World War. However, the speed at which they were built meant that many issues arose which are becoming more apparent today, not least the loss of community.

Brutalism

Tower blocks were regarded as essential to solve the housing shortage after the Second World War. Many of the tower blocks built in the 50s and 60s are still in use today. These concrete buildings are seen as providing low cost housing and crime levels are higher thus becoming increasingly unpopular. There is even an art movement called Brutalism or Brutalist Architecture which emerged as a result.

Brutalism was coined by the British architects Alison and Peter Smithson. Brutalist buildings make use of exposed concrete or brick and many materials often used modular construction. The design uses angular geometric shapes and the materials are monotone in colour. A notable example of brutalist architecture is the Barbican in London.  

Some people love this architectural style with it sometimes being described as a ‘social utopianism’. Others however hate Brutalist architecture, none more so than Ian Fleming of James Bond fame who named his famous Goldfinger character after Ernesto Goldfinger the architect behind such famous brutalist buildings such as the Trellick and Balfron towers. It was rumoured that Fleming was disgusted with the sight of this architecture.

Tower Block Issues

But love them or hate them the tower blocks were a quick fix to a housing shortage at a much needed time. But many issues have arisen with these tower blocks and it is important that as we head into a critical time for housing we do not repeat the same problems of the past.

Aside from the aesthetic issues (a whole separate debate), tower blocks are deteriorating requiring expensive repair works and there are also environmental and social issues which has seen increasing crime levels. This has resulted in calls for essential retrofits. One notable disaster is the Grenfell Tower fire caused as a result of inappropriate cladding which was arguably seen as a quick fix.

Many of these issues are no doubt as a result of poor planning and the need for speed as a result of the lack of housing post-war.

Let’s not repeat the past mistakes

We are now reading on a daily basis about the housing crisis and how we need urgently to address the lack of homes. There are many issues to tackle such as the planning system, build costs, labour supply and property taxes to name a few. Much of the emphasis is on speed. The Prime Minister has weighed in with his well reported words of “Build, Build, Build”.

Modular construction is receiving much attention at the moment and is being flaunted as a key solution to building homes at speed. We are seeing modular construction initiatives being supported by Homes England, the NHBC, the Mayor of London and local Councils. Some traditional housebuilders are also adapting with companies such as Berkeley, Persimmon, Countryside and Crest all opening modular construction factories.

Modular construction companies are able to build ‘modules’ in off-site factories with technological advances enabling these to be built identically and very quickly. Often ‘modules’ will include bathrooms and kitchens which can be built without being affected by adverse weather conditions. This can cut construction time by about 50 per cent.

So whilst modular housing alongside traditional housebuilding will rapidly speed up the delivery of new homes, it is so important that the quality is not compromised. Modular construction must tackle the issues arising from the tower blocks built in the 50s and 60s. Whilst it is only one piece in a much more complicated puzzle, we need to ensure that modular construction is being delivered in the right way.

Reasons to be optimistic

We are already seeing modular construction companies starting to tackle some of these issues. Project Etopia is one innovative company which is investing largely in technological and environmentally friendly advances within their processes. Project Etopia considers that they are “energy positive – meaning the homes generate more energy than they consume”.

Importantly, some of the traditional housebuilders are starting to invest in this form of construction. Traditional housebuilders have a wealth of experience that can greatly enhance this growing area. However impressive the modular product, the same development issues both legal and technical will arise on any site acquisition and traditional companies including professional advisors will need to play an important role in supporting this industry. 

It is also very important for the modular construction companies (which will include new entrants to the market) to work together with traditional housebuilders. Some modular construction companies are tantamount to being contractors and have no further involvement with the development of the site. By liaising with traditional housebuilders, the modular product can be tailored to tackle building quality and speed but also avoid creating social issues – for example effective open spaces and pepper potting of affordable rented units. Modern tower blocks will need to allow for an environment which foresees the future compared to the 1950s where social issues were not appreciated and therefore ignored. This is amplified so much today where both residential and commercial developers are strongly reviewing their practices as a result of the COVID pandemic which was never foreseen at the time of construction of our cities.      

We are at a pivotal moment with much enthusiasm from many parts of society who are coming together to resolve the housing crisis. Innovative ways such as modular construction are welcomed by the housebuilding industry. Speed is essential but careful thought is needed to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. The Beatles sang in their song Revolution in 1968, “We all want to change the world”. Whilst that might be true when it comes to solving the housing shortage, we need to make sure we do it in the right way.

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