Modular-Podular living: progress or pragmatism

In my last blog, way back in the pre-Trumpian days of October 2016, I mused whether it was sensible to develop or promote less-than-ideal housing solutions, or whether settling for adequate might undermine the achievement of the best.

That blog considered two manifestations of the current housing crisis: the spread of tent encampments of European economic migrants, and the scandal of “beds in sheds”. I explored whether new forms of temporary housing may be needed, that could provide basic, safe and sanitary accommodation – a re-imagining, perhaps, of the flophouse of decades gone-by. Such temporary housing would be pragmatic, and far from a perfect solution. But it would have the potential – if lessons can be learnt from the past – to be a far, far better option than tents in public parks or death-trap illegal shed conversions.

As I mentioned on my previous post, together with Thames Reach and Accendo Consult, Commonweal is undertaking much-needed research into the needs, wants and motivations of those living in tent encampments. But we’re also teaming up with the leading international architecture and design firm, Gensler, to help breathe new life into the temporary accommodation model.

This week, Gensler are launching an in-house design competition, aimed at developing a new kind of flexible temporary accommodation. We asked their architects to dream up innovative new solutions to the housing crisis, that could be temporarily installed in to empty or redundant buildings, and are flexible enough to be scaled up or down. The design should not encourage staying in tent encampments by making them more comfortable, but instead provide a new housing solution using existing infrastructure, underutilised or temporarily available buildings, or other creative solutions to get people off the streets and into safe, secure housing.

New forms of housing and new methods of construction have been emerging over recent years, all a long way from the traditional Parker-Morris brick-built idyll. Shipping containers, reduced space 1-person flats, transportable pods and system-built ‘cubes’ are popping up all over the place. Such modular and ‘podular’ homes can be a fantastic use for under-used sites, literally filling a gap before more permanent construction. Exciting projects such as Y:Cube, QED Sustainable Development’s shipping containers, and the Pocket Living small flats have shown that medium- to long-term self-contained homes can be built quickly, cheaply, and on marginal land unsuited to traditional construction. But all of these projects are still aiming at providing homes, rather than temporary accommodation – thus continuing the prevailing housing model, just cheaper and quicker in terms of construction and use.

Other models are also developing. In London, Grad-Pad and The Collective are developing shared living approaches, aimed at young professionals and based around “the halls of residence” experience familiar to their target tenants. Both aim to provide more transitional housing – not homes for life, or the sort of long-term lifetime financial investment which traditional owner-occupation has become. Such pragmatic new models are returning to the core concept of housing being somewhere to live – not a bad starting point when thinking about what housing this country needs.

There is clearly a need for such quicker and cheaper housing options. Increasing not just the quantum and supply of housing but the range of mix is also vital, and let us hope that the imminent Housing White Paper will set out a plan for how a diverse mix of housing can be produced. It is to be welcomed that the latest Government announcements seem to be less dogmatic about owner occupation and are, thankfully, talking about subsidised rental homes too. But the mainstream press, as well as the housing world, too often focuses on owner-occupation and rented housing only, and thus overlooks the full range of different housing types and rental models required.

Human beings are complex and infinitely varied creatures, and we need a housing system that can meet a wide range of needs and requirements, whether it’s life-time renting, transitional move-on accommodation, or crisis intervention emergency housing. But let’s not forget the new and changing needs of those not in crisis, the young and transitory, and especially those who aren’t looking for a long-term home in this country, but who are not tourists or simply passing through in a matter of days and weeks.

Returning to our research into EU economic migrants, it’s clear that what they need is somewhere flexible, cheap, safe and hygienic. Something like a hotel room – just not at hotel prices! At the moment, this sky-rocketing demand for flexible temporary accommodation is being met by unscrupulous landlords, providing beds-in-sheds that are not even vaguely safe, hygienic, or indeed cheap. There must be a better way.

That’s why I’m so excited to see the results from the Gensler Temporary Housing Solution competition later this month. The UK housing sector is tired, unimaginative, and probably stuck in an outdated paradigm. We urgently need new solutions to complex new challenges, and I’m fascinated to see what some of the brightest architectural and design minds in London can come up with. Watch this space!

– Ashley Horsey, CEO

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