Home truths: Big cost questions on Poppintree 22
Riddle me this: how can a 'temporary' prefab house apparently cost more to build than a "permanent" traditional new build home?
This is the big question many are now asking about Dublin City Council's much publicised 22 unit scheme of modular homes currently underway at Poppintree in Ballymun as part of the council's emergency response to homelessness and the housing crisis.
The question has become even more pertinent considering recent comments by the Environment Minister that these homes could become permanent. The 22 factory-built prefab homes are being installed by Western Building Systems, a Northern Irish based firm which won a €4.2m contract for 22 houses. Dividing 22 into €4.2m gives us a per unit cost for a small family three-bed unit of 900 sq ft of €190,000. This works out at about €211 per square foot.
The Construction Industry Federation (CIF) which represents Irish builders, estimates that it costs around €127 - almost half that - to build a permanent block build home. That's around €150,000. This goes up to €170,000 with VAT included - around €143 per square foot, but still €20,000 shy on a per unit basis of the temporary prefab option.
The CIF costing doesn't include additional expenses that their members normally have to add on and which the modular home suppliers presumably don't have to worry about. These include the site cost (around €50,000 for Dublin) the high cost of financing, donation costs for social housing, (around €5,000 per unit), design fees, marketing fees, works, site costs, and the cost of infrastructural construction - many of these latter high state induced costs are the real barrier to preventing regular homes being built in the first place.
The CIF is not happy: "We have already expressed our concerns to the Department on whether modular homes present better value than regular build."
It gets worse when you consider the above in the context of a seminal project by cutting-edge Irish architect Dominic Stevens, who constructed his own three-bedroom house of 600 sq ft in Dromahair for €25,000. He did it to prove a point - that housing doesn't have to be expensive. He has lived there and worked in this 'permanent' home for a number of years. It was fabricated with a timber frame, insulated and coated in Ondulaine, a sustainable plant-based corrugated material. It took him 50 days for himself and his friends to build it. What's more, he has made the plans for the house freely available online. So for 'emergency' housing, what's wrong with the Stevens option?
It seems that since people started asking about the comparative costings at Poppintree, the details have become "commercially sensitive" - what one TD was told when he asked for these details. With his enquiries coming up against a brick (rather than a prefab) wall, Dublin North East TD Terence Flanagan last week accused the council of bringing down a "veil of secrecy" over the costings.
Mr Flanagan said: ''It is not good enough for the council to say that the contract for the design and build of these houses is commercially sensitive. Democratic accountability in the country has collapsed totally if even basic information is now sensitive."
He added: "I am gravely concerned that these new modular 'temporary' homes may cost far more than people expect. I keep getting different figures about how much these units cost to purchase and assemble. It is now being claimed that each unit will cost near to €200,000, which is around €50,000 more than it is to build a concrete house. We are spending more money for a temporary solution to a permanent problem than we would on a permanent solution to a temporary problem."
But it gets even worse. It now seems like these units could be more widely deployed and also that they might be somewhat less 'temporary' than originally announced.
Speaking recently on the site, Minister Alan Kelly said the modular homes (which he described as "fantastic") could be used as a "permanent solution" to housing shortages across the State.
Because in addition to these first 22 units, it is planned that 135 modular homes will be provided at four other Dublin locations in the short to medium term. Indeed, the bigger plan is for 500. While it's bad enough having no disclosure regarding unusual pricing on 22 temporary homes, are we now heading towards ordering 500 such homes on a permanent basis?
Architects are also going bananas.
David O'Shea of residential practice, ODOS, asked: "Who signed off on paying €190,000 per unit? It's absolutely preposterous!" O'Shea also raises the question about whether 'temporary' design for temporary abodes should ever be applied to permanent dwellings, stating his view that the designs at Poppintree are not what they could be.
The Poppintree 22 are turning into much more than a temporary little controversy.