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Highlights from our Housing 2021 forum

Modular housing for the homeless (Pan-London Collaborative Enterprise / ESS)

Last week Future Cities Forum gathered housing experts to discuss different strategies for new homes across London and the UK in 2021, covering the role of public sector organisations as developer-in-chief, factory built and modular homes and temporary housing solutions for the homeless.

While national and local government energies this year have been directed at managing the pandemic, there has also been discussion in Parliament on how to deliver on a target of 300,000 new homes per year and whether these should be scaled up away from the South East to the Midlands and the North. Meanwhile in London the need for new homes is exacerbated by high prices and rents.

The panel comprised Sir Steve Bullock - Chair of SPACE (Plan-London Collaborative Enterprise), Chair of Sutton Housing Partnership, and a former Mayor of Lewisham), Emma Hatch (Senior Development Manager at Transport for London), Michael Swiszczowski (Director at Chapman Taylor Architects) and Jay Morton (Associate Director at Bell Phillips Architects).

On provision of housing for 2021 Emma Hatch was asked how TfL set out to conform to space standards and sustainability on its recent project approval at Wembley Park in London:

Emma responded:

'TfL has a great opportunity on land ownership and development at transport hubs as these are seen as particularly sustainable. We have a significant pipe-line of development opportunities and the key drivers for us are delivering homes including affordable housing and producing a long term income stream that we can feed back into the transport network. Our initial pipe-line will deliver 10,000 homes. The Wembley Park site has been allocated by Brent as a good opportunity for development. Mode shift - getting people to adopt more carbon neutral travel - is important to TfL so we support closing the car park at Wembley Park and delivering housing instead.

'Our approach to property development has been evolving over the last six years. Our Earls Court joint venture was a blue print in how TfL could be proactive in bringing schemes forward. As we are long term stewards it's important to create places that are sustainable, that can give back and that stand the test of time. Our development team has grown significantly and we now have design and sustainability managers in house. We are putting more rigour into our schemes with improved design principles and we are learning from our partners.

'We have a commitment to deliver 50% affordable homes across our projects but this has flexibility on a site by site basis. We look to stipulate this requirement when we put our sites out to market. The development at Wembley Park responds to local needs and liaison with Brent Council found that the preference was for a larger proportion of 'London affordable rent' so the ratio of affordable homes for sale is lower than 50%.

Sir Steve Bullock was asked whether two hundred modular homes in Greater London was enough to tackle homelessness?

He commented:

'Two hundred is the current target with the funding currently available from the GLA. Of course it's nowhere near enough but consider that London boroughs spend £750 million per year on temporary accommodation for the homeless. PLACE can make a difference as what we will provide will be cheaper than renting in the private sector. The project comprises five London boroughs working together - which is pretty unique in my experience.'

Sir Steve was asked whether the urban environment contributes to homelessness?

'I can't give you a direct example, but if you cut down on the public and shared spaces between homes you cut down on the interchanges between people. This affects how people live and behave. When I was Mayor of Lewisham we set up a home for the homeless near where I live. It became clear that many who moved in were in work, not unemployed. There are a lot of people in temporary accommodation who are in fact in work. A lot of people don't grasp this. They simply cannot find anywhere to live that they can afford. We need to do a lot more work in providing affordable housing.'

The discussion also covered the important issue of new homes - and in particular modular - being designed with their location in mind. Michael was asked whether international practice Chapman Taylor's new volumetric housing system, 'Umbrellhaus' could integrate well within the existing fabric of UK cities. Michael said:

'We developed Umbrellahaus in-house and we are going on site with the first project next year. There has been huge investment in time and money at Chapman Taylor to develop this so we can deliver new homes at greater speed with greater efficiencies. The question of whether we could we deliver external treatments for housing in the factory was discussed but it comes down to the fact that the 'chassis' of the home can be standardised but not the exterior. You then knot into the existing grain of the city, and apply site specific needs to the external facades, fire protection, shading and acoustics. You can never completely standardise housing design, as it is so often site-specific. We can only achieve step-change on housing innovation if we all collaborate. There is a viable business model there but only if we can get the local authorities, registered providers, factory operators, housing advisers and mayor's offices to talk to each other.'

The architecture practice Bell Philips has a strong track record of delivering high quality design, with its approach grounded in a fundamental understanding of the technical, financial and practical issues that ensure its says that designs are viable and deliverable. Jay Morton talked about the importance of consulting the community when delivering new housing and the need for industry to be testing innovation:

'There is a lot of ambition coming from local authorities on housing innovation. They really want to push quality design as they are long term stewards. We work with a lot of LAs and many of our recent projects are resident-led. The basic need is four walls but the important questions are who it is for and where it is. If you don't get residents on side you are set to fail. You need to promote the benefits of delivering higher density, with dual aspect, and public areas. On innovation n housing the real stumbling block usually comes at construction stage when developers and local authorities have challenges on price. There may be limited numbers of consultants available on modular, for instance. On the issue of bringing in CLT floors (to reduce the use of concrete) there is less precedence, so it is difficult to get contractors to take it it on. Someone has to go first on innovation to combat climate change. We need the rest of industry to be testing innovation. The ambition is very much there however.

'We completed a scheme recently for 126 homes in Portishead as a BIM project with numbered and coloured steel pieces cut to size ready for assembly. We had very few calls during construction, far less than during traditional methods scheme.. However if everything is made off-site then you cannot provide work for local people and this is something local authorities are grappling with when they weigh up different project approaches.'

Future Cities Forum will be releasing more detail from this important discussion in its 'Housing Report 2021' soon.

(Image below: Passivhaus scheme at Norwood Road, Ealing - Bell Phillips Architects)


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