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.
The cabin is roughly 390 sq ft (40x9.5). We used tongue and groove on the walls and cheap clip together flooring on the ceiling and instead of tiles in the shower, we used Corian. The kitchen was made of some unused deVOL furniture taken from the Mill. Everything was designed to take movement. How did we get water and electricity in - well, we used a water pipe and power cable running underground to the showroom. There's also an ex-Army water bowser from eBay, perfect for waste water and effluent. And yes, we can sleep there. There's a lovely bedroom with a big double bed as well as a sofa in the living room. Phil, our estates project manager, actually spends a lot of his weekends at the cabin.
You might be wondering 'What about the planning?' Yes, well I wondered about that too. I read every planning policy I could find and was pleased to find out that you can park up to four mobile homes in your garden. This was pretty much a mobile home - though there was a question as to whether this was a garden.. But I figure that as we have a house and residents and it’s all on the same title that it does count. And so far no one's come knocking to tell us to take it away...