Housing issues and thoughts: small homes and off-site manufacturing

Just a few thoughts on housing prompted by an article I have just read on the building of new homes which raised some interesting, and worrying, points.

The UK is building the smallest new-homes in Europe (if not the developed world) and the point was raised of whether we should accept small (or even micro) homes as a trade off to building more homes from the pot of money which is available. In my view it is not just the size of the new homes we are building which is a problem, but the question of whether we are building homes which are capable of being extended (or indeed changed in any other way) in the future should the need arise.

But to stick to the size of homes point, we must not be pushed down the smaller homes route. As previously said, the UK already has the smallest new homes in Europe; and with the increase in the need (or expectation) to work from home, the last thing we need are homes which are too small to work from, and the people who live in them being excluded from job opportunities because they don’t have enough space for home working.

The article said that at recent housing conference someone mentioned the possibility of the UK creating ‘trailer parks’ as a means of addressing the homes shortage, but it was unclear whether this was a serious proposal or said in jest, although over coffee some delegates seemed to think this was a good idea. I said a few years ago (in passing rather than in a blog) that I can see the UK copying the USA with some, and an increasing number of, people being forced into trailer parks as their only means of having a roof over their head. And, like the USA, their occupiers being known as ‘Trailer Trash’. It is indeed worrying that some people seem to think that this is a good idea. This leads us down the road of further and more entrenched inequality in our society.

I am not convinced by the argument, which some are putting forward, for cutting the size of homes being built in order to save on building costs which then can be used to build a few more homes. Surely, any saving on build cost will end up going to bid up the land-price unless the site is being provided for free, and these free gifts must be few and far between.

Similarly I am not convinced that off-site, volumetric, fabrication and manufacturing is an answer to the price of new homes. The sales-price (or rent) of a home has nothing to do with how much it has cost to build that home – it is the market which decides the price not the cost of building the home. So, lower build costs (even if Modern Methods of Construction achieves a lower cost) will only be reflected in higher land-prices, not lower sales prices or rents.

However, off-site fabrication could well have a role to play in addressing the skills-shortage problem within the construction industry. After the Second World War the UK needed to build a large number of new schools very quickly in the context of labour and materials shortage, and pre-fabrication and standardisation was used to address these problems.

In all, I can’t help feeling that there is some worrying thinking going on in the housing industry. Perhaps desperate thinking is the result of desperate times.

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