Apr 23, 2017 Last Updated 12:59 PM, Apr 20, 2017

Ramboll takes stock of the housing crisis

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Tom Shaw, Director at Ramboll, asks: could clever engineering solve the lack of housing stock currently available in the UK?

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As I write, the industry is bracing itself to see what another Autumn Statement will bring. Many will be hoping the new Chancellor will address one of the largest social problems we currently face; the housing crisis. Will Hammond introduce new policies? Is the construction industry equipped to build fast enough? In London alone, the population is growing by about 100,000 annually, but last year, only 25,000 homes were built. National planning policy up and down the country sets a framework for the future development of areas, with Local Plans identifying pockets of land for new homes to be built on. Only recently was the draft Local Plan consultation for Epping Forest launched, earmarking 11,400 homes for the district. However, as well as finding land to build on, in order to get more homes built, we need to find engineering solutions that enable rapid construction on a much larger scale. Homes could be made cheaper, easier and quicker to build, making large scale housing projects more viable and affordable.

Lack of collaboration

Interestingly, the recent Government-commissioned review by Mark Farmer, “Modernise or Die”, highlighted that the construction industry needs to take radical steps to avoid “inexorable decline”. Unlike other industries that have constantly improved with time, construction has plateaued for decades with a lack of collaboration and innovation, and an increasing labour shortage causing cost inflation as more leave the industry than join. The report may be difficult reading, with controversial recommendations such as a “carrier-bag tax” for developers being suggested, but the only way we can resolve the housing crisis is by overcoming these issues and deploying more effective methods.

To rapidly construct on a much larger scale, we need to open up supply chains and increase market capacity. Particular encouragement is needed for those developing new technologies to flourish amongst more traditional construction techniques. This is not a matter of replacing well-established traditional forms of construction, but of increasing construction volumes through supplementing existing methods. While there are a plethora of embryonic solutions, modern methods of engineering that vastly diminish construction times could provide an answer now.

Broadly termed, ‘off-site manufacture’ enables us to construct faster and has proven to be key in ensuring high quality and consistent finishes, whilst minimising labour on site. Construction workforces are reducing, and as those wanting to work on construction sites wanes, factories offer new centres of employment without the need for workers to travel long distances to work on site. In looking to explore how engineers could address the housing crisis problem now, we believe off-site manufacturing is key, and various methods of construction that can be fabricated off site are already leading the way.

The use of timber, and specifically Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT), is one such method. Compared to traditional counterparts, CLT is much lighter in weight and significantly quicker to build. This is ideal for constrained inner city sites where there may be various weight restrictions (such as over railway tunnels), allowing a greater number of apartments to be built more rapidly within the same space. Having overcome issues of fire, longevity, mortgages, insurance and availability, we are starting to see more CLT buildings constructed in the Capital. The London Borough of Hackney’s ‘timber first’ policy is a testament to the confidence now held in this versatile and dynamic material. Dalston Lane, a 121-unit residential development, is one of the latest to be constructed in the borough.

Alongside the use of CLT, precast concrete could now provide a solution to the lack of available housing stock, having suffered a decline in favourability in the past thanks to poor quality control in the 50s and 60s. However, looking past these historic issues, precast construction now provides both advanced finishes and, crucially, significant savings in construction time. Precasting consists of pouring concrete into a reusable mould in a factory, before transporting these elements to site where they are lifted and fixed into place. The luxury Merano tower in Vauxhall is an excellent example of this, highlighting how the use of precast simplified construction on an extremely constrained site, the size of two tennis courts.

A new approach?

Prefabricated volumetric pods offer an entirely new approach to construction. The manufacturing of full rooms or apartments in a factory environment enable the whole unit to be transported using lorries before being stacked on site by cranes – saving both overall project time and time spent on site. It has already been successfully utilised by hotels and student housing projects, but has more recently become popular for more typical residential housing project, such as the Pocket Living development recently completed in Streatham, that provides modern housing for middle income Londoners.

So could the above engineering methods help solve the housing crisis? What is clear is that pumping in Government resource is not enough; we need to create space and methods of construction that enable us to build to meet the needs of our society. The industry must innovate and embrace new ways of building. These modern twists on more traditional forms of construction allow building on a cheaper and quicker scale, while still remaining affordable – all of which are crucial if we are to meet the ever-growing housing demands.

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