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Modular Housing: The Future, Or A Bundle Of Trouble?

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Modular housing has been pioneered in the North West and is expected to play a large and growing part in the residential market of Manchester, and indeed the rest of the UK.

But success in the factory-built housing business depends on clean builds and happy customers, and that may not be so easy to achieve.

Modular housing manchester
The Irwell modular housing scheme, Salford

Faster, cheaper and better quality housing — what’s not to like about modular housing?

They say there is no crisis so grave that somebody doesn’t do well from it, and the UK’s housing crisis has been a boon for the tiny modular housing business.

The sector is moving rapidly: In Croydon Greystar is building the UK’s tallest modular tower, a 44-storey build-to-rent scheme, with Tide Construction and their associate company, Vision Modular Systems.

In Manchester Ilke Homes installed two modular homes at the CIH Manchester Offsite Village in less than 48 hours, demonstrating the capabilities of modular construction to accelerate delivery of much-needed new homes. Big investors like Legal & General are gambling that modular is the future.

Now modular smart home developer Project Etopia has opened a new North West factory capable of producing 2,000 houses a year.

The 50K SF factory in Ellesmere Port can produce five three-bedroom homes per day.

There are already plans to scale up the facility in the future with the addition of two more machines, which would grow capacity to 6,000 units per year.

“This is a critical time for house building in the UK with homes still not being built quickly enough, locking millions of people out of the property market," Project Etopia Chief Executive Joseph Daniels said. "Our modular homes can be built incredibly quickly, and still be given a luxury finish, with smart technology and sustainability features as standard.”

But what if residents do not find the finish luxurious, or even acceptable?

Modular smart home developer Project Etopia has today opened a new factory capable of producing 2,000 houses a year.

The 50,000 sq ft factory in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, is a collaboration with partner company 4wall – the producer of a panelised construction system – and can produce five three-bedroom homes per day. 

There are already plans to scale up the facility in the future with the addition of two more machines, which would grow capacity to 6,000 units per year.
Inside the Project Etopia Factory, Ellesmere Port, producing up to 6,000 housing units a year

Urban Splash’s Irwell Riverside development is one of the region’s first major modular housing schemes. The sales pitch promised factory-built houses: With “higher standards and meticulous precision that are near impossible to match on-site. So it’s all ready to drop into place, on spec and on budget.”

But "on spec" is exactly what it wasn’t, according to many families who moved in late last autumn. And the Urban Splash Irwell Riverside website no longer contains the claims about meticulous standards (compare this from April 2018 with this from March 2019).

According to Irwell Riverside resident Daniel Jojo, heating and ventilation systems didn’t work properly, leaving children cold. A catalogue of problems mounted including water dripping from the bathroom into the kitchen. More than a dozen tradesmen’s visits were necessary to put things right, by March 2018, he said. A year later and things still aren't right.

He moved in Springfield Road, Salford, in November 2017 with his wife and two 6-year-old children.

“You expect to move in your furniture, and it’s done — that’s what the marketing says," Jojo said. "You expect a few snagging issues — having no adequate heating, over a whole winter, you don’t expect.

“All the neighbours have had the heating on all winter, 24/7. It cost us over £400 in extra bills. It’s a lot — but it also costs time off work, the children being cold, and the stress.”

The heating problem is just one of a list of snags which include failures with ventilation and plumbing.

“We’ve had the floorboards up because pipes are not properly connected, and the heating problem is widespread through the development,” Jojo said.

The disappointment was all the greater because Jojo and his family are fans of modular building techniques.

“This kind of house building technique has been in use in Europe for years — it's not a new technique — and the houses are very clean, spacious, high ceilings, beautifully designed. But you can’t have form without function, we need the functionality too, and it doesn’t function well,” he said.

“It has been a nightmare. Modular living might be a great concept, but it has far to go in terms of execution.”

However, getting the factory-built housing to work in the UK has exhausted his patience.

“I felt like I’d been experimented on, almost like they needed people to find the flaws and to sort them out. I can’t believe you can build a home without checking the heating, for instance. I don’t want to live in a house that requires so much attention.”

A year after his complaints, Jojo said problems remain unresolved, with neighbours also facing problems.

"I wish this was just a simple snagging list as one would expect. When I think about my experience I look to my neighbour next door, who spent the first nine months in a hotel after his waste pipe leaked and ruined his entire home on the ground floor. The destruction of the water has left his home uninhabitable. People have had exploding boilers leaving holes in their ceilings and fire brigades called out," Jojo said.

Other residents have made complaints on a range of similar issues, as Urban Splash acknowledged. Bisnow has seen a private Facebook group for residents which lists complaints including leaks in upstairs toilets, smoke alarms wired into the lighting circuit so the alarm's electricity is turned off if you use a light switch, poorly designed windows, and melted connections in boilers and heaters.

Modular housing 2005 london
Early modular: the 2005 Stoke Newington scheme that pioneered multi-storey development

In a statement, Urban Splash acknowledged there had been problems.

“We regret any inconvenience to our customers affected by the issues outlined here, but believe our House product is robust and a success — with 140 properties already occupied by happy residents on sites in Manchester, Salford and North Shields.

“These minor issues are the kind experienced on new build sites across the country and aren’t as a result of the houses being created using offsite technology. Past issues with heating for example came from a flaw in the radiators we sourced from an external supplier; they had an in-built safety feature which meant that they turned off when reaching a certain heat and thus only actually produced 40% of the wattage output per hour. All affected radiators are in the process of being replaced.

“With this, and with any issues faced by our customers, we reacted quickly and tried to rectify them within a reasonable time frame — we hope that this has led to a happy customer base; we have a great deal of positive feedback from our residents who have become champions for the modular concept. 

“We also offer all of our homes with a two-year defects period and a 10-year new homes structural warranty."

In February 2018 Urban Splash acquired modular builder SIG for a nominal £1, taking back control of the modular process.

“Our acquisition of the offsite, modular factory was a  big step forward as we tried to take control of the issues outlined above," Urban Splash said. "The move has greatly benefitted our customers thanks to the appointment of our own dedicated snagging team; they sit outside the ‘day to day’ works and are responsible for resolving any issues.

“We have also acquired direct contractual relationships with subcontractors responsible for rectifying defects and we will be in a much better position to close any issues out," the company added.

Teething problems are not unusual in any new business sector, and house building is notoriously complicated and prone to problems. The Urban Splash investment — which means vertical integration and greater control — could be a big step forward.

But for some residents the learning curve has been too steep.