Blog: September 2015

Prefabricated modular houses: an affordable, viable solution to the housing crisis
Abby Trow, Deco editor, is wowed by BRE latest show houses

I've just got back from the BRE (Building Research Establishment) Innovation Park in Watford where I feel I've seen the future of housing.

And it looks great.. low cost, low energy, generous-sized homes that people could buy based on multiples-of-income mortgages..for which I mean around the £100-£150,000 mark (taking an average salary as being in the £25-£35,000 bracket); or which, given their cost, could be rented at genuinely affordable rents. These surely should get everyone involved in social housing truly excited.

The houses in question are called volumetric accommodation, or super duper prefabs in common parlance. That's because they're assembled from insulated prefabricated units that arrive on site fully fitted out with cables, wires and pipes, electric sockets, doors and windows, kitchens and bathrooms and walls painted and merely in need of a picture or two. And your roof can be clad with terracotta tiles that are, in fact, photovoltaics, so you can generate your own electricity (see the opening image).

The pods are manufactured in South Wales and this semi-detached building, which divided into a two-storey and a three-storey house, is the result of collaboration between Swiss not-for-profit technology company Userhuus, which is focusing on sustainable solutions for the built environment, and Edinburgh-based Tigh Grian, which develops structural insulated panel system houses (SIPS) aimed at alieviating fuel poverty.

The homes are incredibly energy efficient, being highly insulated and heated using a whole house mechanical heat recovery ventilation system, with wall-mounted electric panel heaters (no, I'm not entirely sure what that means, but think warmth...). So the aim of the houses is to give the lucky occupants very low energy bills - est £300-£500 a year - and even lower if you have the PV roof tiles. 

The exterior of the houses can be clad in different materials, so we can build social housing communities that aren't full of identical rabbit hutches a la Wimpey.

And inside, well, I was genuinely impressed. Rooms were pretty generously sized, ceilings weren't so low those over six ft have to stoop (I reckon they were 8.5ft), kitchens were big enough for a six seater dining table and if you're interested in interior design, you've got a great blank canvas to do something wonderful with. In short, it wasn't a doll's house experience.

These houses come in at around £1,000 per m2 - about half the price of a conventional brick build. So they should be affordable for many people on that average salary; and the younger generations should take comfort from the fact there are are great brains working out how they can  get on the housing ladder without having to force mum and dad to sell up and move to a caravan park for their twilight years.

Eight week build time

And another amazing thing about them is the construction time - just eight weeks from factory to completion onsite.

But...what about land prices?

But...of course, the big problem when it comes to affordable housing isn't about the cost of building a house, it's about land. Because land in Britain is stockpiled by the big house builders, councils have already sold off a lot of the land they held and the land they have they want market prices for, and landowners sit on their acres... so the price of land continues to rise. As anyone who's ever thought how nice it would be to do a little self-build in London or the South East..or South West..will know.

So until government takes action to make land affordable, you can have all the affordable high tech houses in the world ready to go and be erected in eight weeks... but if individuals or communities or housing associations, or local authorities have to raise millions for a plot, well, everything will just remain a set of drawings.

That said, we should all congratulate Userhuus and Tigh Grian on their remarkable achievment. I hope your kids and mine will have the affordable joy of living in an Userhuus when they come to want a home of their own in a few years' time.

eco friendly, eco home, self build
From loo paper to gift wrap, choose recycled paper
Tracy Umney of Re-wrapped gift wrap champions recycled paper
Recycled paper can be more expensive, yes, but prices are coming down - I notice, for example, that recycled loo paper in the supermarkets is the same price as the non-recycled.
Gift wrapping paper comes in for criticism as being wasteful, given that most of us can't wait to rip it off to get to the gift inside. (That said, I'm sure most of us do recycle it...)
I'm in the wrapping paper business so I obviously don't urge people to forgo the wrapping paper and hand over gifts au naturel, so to speak! But I think the giftwrap industry should make more use of recycled paper and we have put our money where our mouth is with our company, Re-wrapped, because our wonderful designs are all printed in the UK on recycled paper - which is of course recyclable too. Indeed we like to think we may well get the paper back from our customers at some point so we can print it with a new design.
I try to be green and my inspiration for Re-wrapped came from years of searching online and in gift shops for recycled wrapping paper. I did find some product online, but nothing at all in my local gift shops.
It struck me as odd that offices across the country were starting to use recycled paper, but the giftwrap manufacturers weren't. So after the birth of my son I began designing a few sheets of Christmas paper and found a printer who would print on the quality of recycled paper I was after.
In 2011 Re-wrapped had three designs in print. Fast forward five years and we have 23 designs and are working with some amazing artists/designers. Crucially, our papers are priced the same as most quality non-recycled giftwraps, so customers aren't faced with that dilemma of how to reconcile the need to save money and be greener in their purchases.
I'm sure I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, but it's worth recapping on few facts and figures:
* Every year, Britons use enough wrapping paper to circle the globe nine times - or to reach the surface of the moon.
* The production of recycled paper uses fewer chemicals and 70 per cent less energy than production of virgin paper.
* And recycled paper production reduces the amount of waste paper going to landfill and therefore greenhouse gas emissions. 
* According to environmental charity Waste Watch, for every tonne of 100 per cent post-consumer recycled paper purchased instead of virgin fibre paper, we save:
- at least 30,000 litres of water.
- 3,000 - 4,000 KWh electricity; enough power for an average three-bedroom house for one year.
- approximately six mature trees and 3.3 yards of rapidly diminishing landfill space.
art, eco friendly, upcycling