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Are prefabricated houses the solution to the UK’s housing crisis?

In 2021, residents began moving into two bottle green towers rising 135 metres above the London borough of Croydon. The south London development, comprising 546 homes, claims to be the world’s tallest residential modular building. Besides the prefabricated homes, Ten Degrees also houses an art gallery and café.  While prefabricated houses have traditionally had a poor reputation in the UK, Ten Degree is part of a wider shift in perceptions about this approach to residential construction. There are several such schemes currently in the works across the UK, including IKEA-backed houses in Worthing, prefab homes for veterans in Scotland and residential units in Cardiff.

prefabricated house under construction

Quick to build and cheaper than traditional construction, prefab homes are touted by some as the answer to the UK’s housing crisis. So, what are prefabricated houses, and can they solve the country’s housing problem?

Learn more: Challenges and opportunities for UK housebuilders

What are prefabricated houses?

A prefabricated home is a residential unit that is predominantly built off-site. This part of the construction usually takes place in a factory. Once manufactured, site teams assemble the flooring, walls, windows and roofs on a building site after laying the foundations. Prefab homes were traditionally fairly basic, but modern construction methods mean they can be very luxurious, energy-efficient and customisable.

Related: What are the benefits of modular construction?

How could prefab homes address the housing crisis?

The UK currently builds about 15,000 prefab homes each year, but manufacturers like IKEA, Huf Haus, Urban Splash, Legal & General and Berkeley Homes (among others) believe this number could be increased significantly in the coming decade. By building more of these structures, prefab homes could directly address the housing supply shortage. Here’s how:

  • Prefabricated homes are quick to build

Prefab homes are much faster to build than traditional residential units. Different manufacturers claim different timeframes, but they can be built in as little as two days, compared to traditional construction which takes upwards of 32 weeks. Once you have delivered all parts to the site, the ‘construction’ stage requires little more than assembling them together. By building homes faster, it should, in theory, be possible to build many more units per year.

  • Address the skills shortage

The UK has a shortage of professional builders. This means that there are fewer people available to build homes. However, assembling a prefabricated house requires significantly fewer people, and they do not need such advanced skills as traditional construction professionals either. Again, this means it should be possible to build more of the structures.

  • Delays less likely

Since most of the work on prefab homes takes place in a factory setting, you don’t have to worry about the impact of weather or other external factors on construction. The project manager can order the exact quantity of materials required, minimise waste and time the project precisely. This is radically different to traditional building, where adverse weather, labour shortages or even traffic can slow down construction. With fewer delays, it’s possible to build more homes.

  • Prefabricated houses are cheaper to build

Prefab homes benefit from the repetition and scalability that the manufacturing process offers. This means that it is cheaper to build the structures and developers can theoretically pass on lower costs to buyers. This could be particularly beneficial since, for many people, the cost of housing makes getting onto the property ladder extremely difficult.

By enabling builders to produce more structures in less time, prefabricated houses could make a significant contribution to the country’s attempts to overcome its housing shortage. However, while prefab homes are certainly attractive, we should also be cautious about expecting them to solve all the UK’s housing problems.

Prefabricated houses can’t fix it alone

There is no doubt that prefab homes could play a significant role in increasing the supply of housing stock available to UK buyers. Nevertheless, it might be unrealistic to think of them as a ‘silver bullet’ to the problem.

  • Planning laws

The UK’s housing problems have complex roots, not helped by the country’s complicated planning laws. It is only possible to build prefabricated homes – or any residential structure for that matter – if you receive approvals for your plans. However, getting planning permission is often very onerous. Large developments often require years of planning and consultation, which takes large amounts of resources. Until the government addresses this issue, prefab homes cannot solve the housing shortage.

  • A big upfront investment

Many of the UK’s housebuilders are small firms that can only produce a handful of structures each year. However, to get into the prefab housing construction game, businesses need a huge upfront investment in factories, materials, skills and resources. This means that only firms with deep pockets, which can invest in manufacturing sites, can really enter this market.

  • Quality assurance issues

If there is a mistake when building with traditional methods, it is usually a ‘one off’ problem that you can solve by re-doing the work or updating the plan to account for the change. On the other hand, if there is a mistake in a prefabricated house design, it is hard to resolve this once the production line is up and running. Without a proper QA procedure, workers could reproduce the same mistake on every single unit. It’s plausible that you can build tens – or even hundreds – of homes before anyone realises there’s a serious structural issue. That could cost thousands, if not millions, to fix.

These factors certainly do not detract from the potential of prefabricated homes. However, expecting them to singlehandedly solve the UK’s housing crisis seems overly optimistic.

Nevertheless, it is reasonable to expect more prefabricated houses in the coming years. This is also thanks to their many other benefits, including low energy usage, environmentally friendly construction methods, and less disruption around building sites.

Quality assurance for prefabricated houses with PlanRadar

PlanRadar is a construction technology that supports quality assurance in modular building. Construction managers use the app to perform checks during both the manufacturing and assembly of prefab homes. Experts can check all elements of a structure against the blueprint before they leave the factory. This minimises the risk of problems with prefabricated houses. The app also supports aftercare – if any issues need to be addressed once handover is complete, they can be located on the building plan and passed to relevant professionals to inspect and resolve.

In action: How PlanRadar is used by one UK modular construction business

To learn more about how PlanRadar can be used to support the construction of prefabricated houses, book a demo today.

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