Prefabs sprouting: Modern Methods of Construction and the English housing crisis

The UK Government is once again embracing the 'prefab'. However, rather than the iconic bungalows of the post-war housing emergency, or the ageing concrete tower blocks that still dominate many urban skylines, today's offerings are digitally designed and manufactured in controlled factory settings.

In 2019, the Government - keen to accelerate housebuilding, reduce carbon emissions and challenge the traditional construction sector - began to commit significant resources to this method of housebuilding, what is usually called 'Modern Methods of Construction' or MMC. They did this, in part, because of the ongoing 'housing crisis' whereby an insufficient supply of good quality, affordable homes for sale and rent has driven up the numbers of people living in insecure, poor quality and temporary accommodation. The MMC sector is now growing rapidly in England and large companies like Ikea and Legal and General are receiving Government grants to build MMC homes. However, there is little research being done to understand what kind of homes and places MMC firms are building or what role MMC is playing or should play in addressing the housing crisis.

Our project will fill this gap and is organised around four main tasks. Firstly, we will build a picture of the MMC sector itself and establish what kind of companies we find, where they are located and what kind of homes and business philosophies they offer. Second, we will study what kind of homes and places MMC developers are being commissioned to deliver by clients and policymakers across England and how this process of delivery unfolds. Third, we will analyse the system that surrounds MMC and examine how policymakers and the housing industry are changing or responding to the new firms. Fourth, we will evaluate if new MMC homes and places are helping to address the housing crisis in England by, for example, offering more affordable, safe, energy efficient, durable that are well planned and located.

Part of the study works at the national level to understand what is happening with MMC across England. Another part of the study is anchored in three cases of MMC-driven housing regeneration in Doncaster, Leeds and Bolton. We are working in partnership with the three firms building these new sites - Bauman Lyons, Citu and Ilke Homes - to gain first-hand knowledge of how MMC projects are delivered and to talk to residents living in MMC homes.

Our project is innovative in bringing together researchers working in social policy, housing studies, geography, architecture and project management and our methods include 'elite' and resident interviews, ethnography and GIS mapping.

Our study will enable us to deliver new data of benefit to: scholars interested in housing justice, technical standards, safety and sustainability; government policymakers hungry to address the housing crisis and understand the impact and trajectory of MMC; MMC firms looking for best practice and to publicise their innovative approach to construction; housebuilding industry professionals looking to better understand MMC; civil society organisations who want more information about this new industry and its impacts; the general public who want insights into the reality of buying and living in a modern 'prefab' home and housing activists who are looking for an alternative housing system that works very differently from what we have now.