Could modular homes solve the housing crisis? The ongoing severe shortage of properties to rent is being blamed for a further surge in the cost of accommodation.
Across the country there were just 1,087 homes available to rent at the start of this month – down by a quarter on the same time a year ago and about 25pc of the availability from 2015 to 2019.
The author of the latest Daft.ie report, Ronan Lyons, said the increase in market rents around the country had been driven by extraordinary shortages in the availability of rental accommodation.
At the same time, teaching unions are reporting the housing crisis is posing a serious risk to the education system with the lack of accommodation affecting staffing in schools and colleges.
And it’s not just teachers. People holding down many types of job cannot afford to rent in Dublin or many of the major urban centres, with knock-on effects to the public sector as well as the economy.
Rory Hearne, in his recent book Gaffs, suggests that rapid-build, modular, green social housing can be built quickly and affordably, applying modern industrial techniques using low and zero-carbon materials.
He says prefabricated modular homes can be built in a factory in a week and assembled on site in four days. Factories in Carlow, Kerry, Cavan, and Donegal are manufacturing homes for less than €200,000, so doing this at scale would reduce costs further.
These homes have already been delivered in new green social housing across Ireland. “Unfortunately, these examples are few and far between. The Government should be funding them on a huge scale,” Mr Hearne says.
Up to 250 Ukrainian refugees are to be house in 64 modular homes in Cork. Vacant sites in or near urban areas are being considered for these homes. It is expected 500 units will be rolled out in areas across the country in January and February.
But what has been the experience of modular homes in other countries?
Modular construction is popular in Japan, Germany and Sweden but has been slower to get going in the UK. Of 200,000 homes built each year, about 15,000 were modular, a report in 2019 had found.
Part of this relatively low figure is the negative associations with factory-built, prefabricated housing of the post-war era. Similar memories of freezing-cold prefabs in the school yards of schools across Ireland during the 1980s cause many to shudder.
However, the construction used now produces high-quality, cost-efficient homes designed and manufactured using the latest technologies. “The buildings look and feel very solid and there’s no sense they have a transient or temporary quality,” said Ben Derbyshire, former president of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
He believes modular construction in the UK is at a turning point. Ikea has taken its flat-pack approach to modular housing and is building about 400 affordable such homes across Worthing, Bristol and Peacehaven.
The UK’s housing industry has an ageing workforce and relies on migrant labourers from Europe to fill its skills shortage, according to Adam Challis, head of living research at real estate firm JLL. “The industry is not recruiting anywhere near the rate people are retiring. We will need to switch to modern methods of construction as a way of offsetting labour,” he says.
Modular housing requires less labour and can be built faster. That they are constructed indoors removes the disadvantages of building while exposed to the elements, allowing construction in a controlled environment. “You wouldn’t buy a car that’s been built outside in the rain and mud,” said Luke Barnes, co-founder of Ideal Modular Homes, in Liverpool. “We’ve got a digital quality control system that follows every process in the factory, so it leaves zero defects unlike traditional builds where after people move in there’s consistent snagging that has to be rectified.”
Fewer lorry deliveries to the site also lowers the carbon footprint along with the use of more sustainable materials in the build. “We are in the midst of a housing crisis, and we have to find new solutions to break out from the practices that have contributed to it,” said Marc Vlessing, the founder of Pocket Living, a London-based affordable housing company.
Here, the Government’s plans involve buying the ‘very good quality’ modular homes from Irish suppliers and then having them on site within 16 weeks.
Once on-site homes can be rapidly assembled. One Irish company can install a pair of semi-detached houses in a day at about four hours a house and about 90pc completed. The modular homes for Ukrainian refugees are expected to have a lifespan of 40 to 60 years.
Modular homes can cost considerably more than a traditional approach. But the cost differential is diminishing. Last year the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) said modular construction costs were close to becoming cheaper than conventional on-site methods. Building large-scale housing developments can keep costs lower. The CIF suggested such projects are best suited to developments of at least 100 or more dwellings.
The Ukrainian modular housing pilots across the country will be watched closely as an opportunity to build sustainable affordable housing quickly for single people, students, young families, retiring couples, visitors and many more others.
Dr Catherine Conlon is a public health doctor in Cork and former director of the Safefood agency