Prefab revolution starts with major ‘house factory’ in UK

A vast new factory has come on stream in the UK with timber delivered at one end, and just a week later a fully furnished one-bed flat emerging at the other.

The move towards producing high volume ‘prefab’ houses is being backed by the insurance giant, Legal & General Homes which is planning to build thousands of flats and houses a year and deliver them around the country on the back of trucks.

Orders for hundreds of housing units are already on the books with the first placed by a housing association in south-west London which estimates that off-the-peg units are at least 15% below the standard cost for onsite construction.

What arrives on site is a “turn-key” home complete with a kitchen, fitted carpet, curtains and bathroom, and even furniture if requested.

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The eight production lines at the highly automated 550,000 sq ft factory will be able to build around 3,500 houses and flats a year – a one bedder in one week, a two-bedder in two weeks. The timber-framed homes are made in modules, bolted together on site, with external cladding the only other extra required.

“At full production, homes like this will be delivered repeatedly in a matter of weeks without the snagging issues faced by traditional methods,” said Nigel Wilson, the chief executive of L&G. “Just as the car industry was automated, so the UK’s traditional housebuilding sector now needs to step up. We need to build houses faster and more efficiently than ever before.”

For housing associations the L&G prefabs answer their most pressing need: accommodation for young, single, urban workers earning between £20,000 and £40,000 who do not qualify for conventional social housing but who are priced out of buying.

Tenants will receive a high-spec home complete with a luxury kitchen and lounge, separate bedroom and bathroom, underfloor heating and PV solar cells that promise to shave total energy bills to as little as £10 a year. There’s even a “smart door” that lets the tenant ping the entrance open remotely from their mobile at work should they need to let someone in.

The insurer and institutional investor has spent more than £50m setting up a factory capable of pumping out 3,000 houses or 4,500 flats a year with cutting-edge manufacturing techniques that involve no traditional construction tradespeople.

It plans to invest a further £500m in building more home-factories across the UK in what would be the biggest push for offsite manufacturing of homes since the end of the Second World War.

The project could rewrite the rules of the UK housing market, which has seen prices soar amid an undersupply of homes stretching back decades.

Robert Hall, head of business development at L&G Homes, said: “What we’re doing is true offsite manufacturing. The process we use involves no tradesmen, zero. The homes will be built complete in the factory, carpets, curtains, white goods, television.

“All the units are not a set pattern, you can have any design you wish. What we’re looking to do is have a design suite where tenants and residents can come and almost design their own homes.”

These homes aim to fill a key gap in the UK market, addressing a need that’s also pressing in the United States: affordable housing for young, single urban workers.

Other companies see similar potential in this technology: Google just ordered 300 units of prefab housing from a new Bay Area startup, Factory OS, earlier this year, hoping to provide affordable accommodations for its workforce in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country.

The Marriott’s hotel chain has embarked on a programme of building prefab hotels in a major shift in the chain’s business strategy—creating hotels faster, cheaper, and at a high quality by manufacturing their modular components in a factory and shipping them to the site.

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September 27, 2017
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