What planners need to know about modular housing

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Need-to-know information about key current policy and legal issues

The growth of modular housing means planners will need to consider issues around design quality and construction methods, says Stuart Irvine.

Q Has the use of modular housing grown in recent years? If so, why?

A The role of modular or off-site manufactured housing is playing a bigger role in meeting housing need. Take-up by national housebuilders has been slow, but build-to-rent developers, social housing providers and institutional-based sectors such as care homes and retirement living - all of which are growth areas - are attracted to modular housing's benefits, which include predictable costs, speedy construction and consistent quality.

Q How is the growth of modular housing being promoted in the Housing White Paper?

A The White Paper has set out clear Government support in principle and, more importantly, with the promise of funding.

The paper reiterates a promise to "stimulate the growth of this sector" through access to the £3 billion Home Building Fund, which offers Government loans to developers to build new homes or for site preparation. Though the fund has been open since the autumn, this pledge to use it to support developers using modular housing offers them a significant opportunity. In the paper, the Government also promises to consider how the operation of the planning system is working for modular housing schemes and to work with local areas that support the sector.

Q Why is the Government keen to promote modular homes?

A Ministers believe that modular housing will assist in diversifying the housing market beyond traditional housebuilders. Take-up of modular housing has been stronger in those sectors, such as build to rent, where the Government is keen to expand housing delivery. Modular housing developers also disproportionately tend to be small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). With the Government keen to deliver homes faster, the White Paper highlights the speed of offsite construction as a major benefit, as well as reduced costs.

A 24/7 Living UK modular housing scheme

Q Why is this important for planners?

A The extent of its importance will be determined by the level of take-up by the development industry and Government support. Planners will need to understand the impacts of modular housing's construction techniques and the design implications. Planners will also have a key role in determining how fast the industry is able to grow, particularly in terms of providing sites for off-site modular housing factories.

Q What planning issues does modular housing raise?

A Perceptions that modular build equates to poor design quality will be a key issue for the planning system. Officers may find that council members retain negative opinions around design quality, which may be based on memories of 1960s and 1970s 'prefab' buildings. Planners can help to ensure that modular housing schemes achieve high standards by attaching weight to good design in the decision-making process and preparing local plan policies that support high-quality modular build.

Similarly, space standards are another area where planners may encounter long-held perceptions of small, badly-designed accommodation associated with the prefab buildings of 50 years ago. In fact, building modular housing does not necessarily mean creating small spaces. Planners will also need to recognise the particular construction requirements of modular methods compared to traditional house-building. For example, the greater use of cranes needed to install modular units and health and safety issues associated with their transportation and delivery.

Q The Government said it would examine how the planning system could be used to better support greater use of modular housing. How might this be achieved?

A A fundamental issue is how much local authorities support sectors that make use of modular build, such as build to rent and social housing. Greater backing for these uses in local plans, as well as promotion of self and custom build and providing a range of sites for SME builders, could all provide more opportunities for modular housing.

Key points

  • The Housing White Paper offers Government support for modular housing, both in principle and with the promise of funding.
  • Modular build has until now been more employed by developers of build to rent, social housing, retirement housing and care homes than by national housebuilders.
  • Planners should understand modular housing's construction impacts and the design implications. Planners are key to the sector's growth through local plans and decision-making.

This article was first published in Planning.

12 April 2017