Japanese builder pushes for prefabricated housing solutions

Would you live in a prefabricated home? The construction of modular houses with the help of robots in factories is not always associated with aspirational living or high-quality building, but attitudes are changing.

Now Japan’s biggest housebuilder believes that it can change the perception of “prefab” as it prepares to build “thousands of homes” targeting first-time buyers in Britain.

Kenta Konishi, boss of Sekisui in the UK, hopes to change the perception of prefabs from the spartan builds of the postwar era to modern starter homes

Eighty-four per cent of detached houses in Sweden, the world leader, use prefabricated timber elements, while in countries including the United States, Australia and Britain no more than 5 % of permanent housing has any significant prefabrication. Countries in mainland Europe such as Germany and the Netherlands are pursuing the technique more assidously.

Sekisui House has been building modular homes in Japan, where the bulk of houses are partially built in factories, since 1960. It built 43,735 homes in Japan last year, 5 per cent of the country’s output and almost as much as the combined production of Persimmon, Taylor Wimpey and Barratt Developments in the UK.

“We have started with a small investment but we want to grow big,” Kenta Konishi, 39, chief executive of Sekisui’s UK business, says.

Sekisui has formed a joint venture with the UK government and Urban Splash, a Manchester-based developer, to build homes using modular construction. Three months ago Sekisui took a 35 % stake in the developer’s modular homes business, which has a factory in Alfreton, Derbyshire.

Homes England, the government’s housing delivery agency, has committed £30 million of equity and debt to the venture and Sekisui has established an office in London and is planning to open another in Manchester. It is bringing staff from Japan to improve the quality and productivity of the Derbyshire factory and to develop new housing models to appeal to Britons.

“We were not really aware that there’s a huge lack of housing supply in this country,” Mr Konishi says.

“The UK is one of the leading countries for design and architecture, so when took a look we were a bit surprised because we see many things are advanced in this country but housing was quite left over, in a sense.”

Britain needs more homes to meet the demands of its growing population. The government has a target of building 300,000 a year by the middle of the next decade, but only just over 200,000 went up last year.

Homes England is pushing developers to use modern methods of construction to speed up building and expand market choice while encouraging better quality. Sekisui says that it can help Britain build thousands more affordable and mid-market homes at a high quality. “We believe there’s a huge market in first-time buyers,” Mr Konishi says. “People want to buy but cannot afford to or have some constraints to buying. So we want to target that potential market.”

The prefabricated homes that were built in Britain to address the postwar housing shortage have influenced attitudes to modular houses. From 1946, more than 156,000 prefabs went up in record time as a temporary solution to last no longer than ten years.

The houses were typically bungalows and, while much-loved by residents, were built in a style that gained a bad reputation for being low quality and unsightly. Although a few are still standing, the homes are poorly built by today’s standards.

In Japan, customers typically play a significant role in designing their home. At its “dream factory” in Tokyo, prospective customers can tour about 20 homes on display that range in style from North American to Scandinavian or eco-friendly. Customers fill out a questionnaire with details of their lifestyle and specific design requirements. The home is designed by one of Sekisui’s 3,000 in-house architects in its branch offices. Once it has been designed, the home and landscaping usually take between three and four months to build.

The average price is about £270,000, based on the current exchange rate. However that does not include the cost of the land, which Japanese consumers typically buy separately.

“The customer journey should be very comfortable,” Mr Konishi says. “Sometimes it can be stressful for customers but we want to make sure that every single experience of building the house together will be a joyful and delightful experience.”

Sekisui has a housebuilding research and development institute focused on innovation at its head office in Osaka. It has developed advanced air ventilation systems and says it is the world’s largest builder of net-zero energy homes.

The investment from Sekisui during a period of political uncertainty has been regarded as a vote of confidence in the British housing market. Japanese investment in UK property has been limited since the 1990s, when many investors got burnt in the property crash. “We see huge potential in this market and that is not really affected by Brexit. If you invest in London it’s different, but we are not going to invest in London, we are going into the regional cities where the demands are,” Mr Konishi says.

Ian Guthrie, of the property advisory firm JLL, which helped Sekisui to come to Britain, said: “Their entry into the UK is a game changer for both modular housing and the wider housebuilding industry.”

Can we build it? Yes we can
It has three methods of building: light steel, heavy steel and timber frame. Architects design each house based on the demands of the customer. About half of each home is pre-constructed in a factory, where panels and walls that make up the core structure are manufactured. Once the property is handed over to the customer, a construction manager visits after a month to make sure that all has gone to plan. Staff return again after three months, six months and a year. “We really engage with customers for a long duration,” Mr Konishi says. “My parents’ house was built in 1994 but every year a person will send a letter to us and keep in touch with us.”

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September 13, 2019
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