In the limelight

November 1, 2018

Alison Cowie asks where is the innovation in home building?

Global car manufacturers spend multi-million-pound budgets ensuring their newest models showcase the latest innovation and the smartest technology to keep us comfortable, safe, entertained and as fuel efficient as possible. And this is not just from the luxury end of the market – most average family saloons now come with satellite navigation, air conditioning and Electronic Stability Controls as standard.

But the same can’t be said for our homes. Innovation is not embraced in the same way by developers, which means many home owners and tenants – myself included – choose to live in houses that were built up to and exceeding 100 years ago.

Watch a few episodes of Grand Designs and you’ll find well-meaning home owners – with deep pockets – creating bespoke homes that use modern methods of construction, so the technology is there. But in larger scale housing development, most of the homes still look the same and are, by-and-large, built using the traditional methods.

The UK is in the middle of a housing crisis and the Government has set an ambitious target of 300,000 new homes to be built each year to keep up with demand.

But with an 82,650-home shortfall reported in 2016/17, there’s clearly a need for more efficient home building – something that innovative practices could surely satisfy.

The good news is that the attitudes among the construction industry are beginning to change and technologies such as Building Information Modelling (BIM) – a form of digital construction management – are being embraced on the large scale.

Housing association Home Group, is also attempting to tackle the problem head-on with a live research project in Gateshead.

Brian Ham, executive director of development at Home Group, explains: “Innovation is going on and there are modular manufacturers springing up,” he says, “but because of the scale Home Group develops homes, we need to test the technology and see what it’s like – not just from a technical building point of view but what these innovative homes are like to live in.”

The Gateshead Innovation Village is a partnership between Home Group, Engie, Homes England and Gateshead Council, along with a number of modular suppliers including Ikle Homes, Simply Modular, Premier, Icarus Light Steel Framing and Xella UK and others.

The village comprises 41 homes – of which 35 are being built using varying modular construction while six are using traditional bricks and mortar.

“We’re comparing the types of construction to assess quality, consistency, reliability of suppliers and stability of price,” says Brian.

But it isn’t just in construction methods that Gateshead Innovation Village will be a test bed for.

“Just as we’re being encouraged to drive electric cars, there’s the same push towards electric heating of building,” the executive director of development says. “Electrically heated buildings are not radical or different but the challenge is to make it cost effective.”

Brian goes on to explain that the village’s homes will all be “super insulated” and boast a combination of ground-source heat pumps and air-source heat pumps.

Two “extreme low energy homes” will also have photovoltaic power cells on their roofs, which will absorb and store energy in batteries.

“The benefit of this is that this energy doesn’t need to go into the national grid – where you lose approximately 30 per cent,” says Brian.  “Instead, it can be used to power a range of appliances and devices that run off DC currents.”

With the homes’ construction in their final stage, Home Group is currently looking at incorporating more smarter technology into the properties, while one will be used by academic researchers to test assistive technologies.

“This is a rapidly emerging area,” says Brian, “so we’ve agreed that the region’s universities can use it to test some of their inventions to see how practical they could be in allowing frail and elderly people live in their homes for longer.”

Construction at Gateshead Innovation Village is due to finish in March 2019 and Home Group is working with Gateshead Council to find tenants in all but the assistive technology home.

“We want to attract a group of people who want to work with us and help us understand the technology we’re testing,” Brian says.

Brian and Home Group, however, are also mindful that there is a negative perception towards modular homes in the UK.

“There were also a lot of prefab homes built after the Second World War. They were built in a rush, using poor technology, and it’s given modular construction a bad name,” says Brian.

“I accept that there’s a bit of a PR exercise to do but as one of the modular manufacturers said to me, ‘you wouldn’t hire a mechanic to build you a car in your garage’. The message we need to get across is that these homes are being precision built to very demanding quality standards in a factory.”

Home Group hopes that the Gateshead Innovation Village will provide the research and the data to prove the long-term viability of modular homes across the housing market – from luxury homes to affordable, shared ownership and rented residential property.

“Our aim is to procure approximately 25-35 per cent of our future pipeline from modular. This would mean between 500 and 1000 homes a year within three years,” Brian says.

If innovation continues to be embraced in construction in the same way that Home Group has, perhaps it won’t be long before the majority of us will be returning to our modern method of construction-built homes – entering via a keyless system; after all, it’s technology that was first introduced in cars over 20 years ago.

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