Is technology the game changer for the housing crisis?

Is technology the game changer for the housing crisis?

During the recession of 2008, many construction workers left the housing sector to seek employment in other industries as the sector shed 140,000 jobs. Construction has since rebounded, but not enough of those workers have come back to fill the growing number of jobs. Many construction workers are retiring and younger people are not entering the trade in enough numbers to meet demand, which leaves the housebuilding industry facing a certain skills crisis in the next decade.

The Government has set itself a target to build 300,000 new homes every year in England alone; with many SMEs struggling to hire key tradesman and the shortage of workers being at it’s worse level on record and forecast to shrink again by 25% over the next decade, then the Government’s ambitious annual target is under threat.

Couple that with Brexit potentially stopping the supply of EU workers, is now the time to reshape Britain’s construction industry? The construction industry is not known for embracing new technologies and has seen little change in building techniques for many years, but maybe now is the time for homebuilders to seek out new innovation.

There are a small number of housing developers who are looking to change the way that homes are constructed in the UK as a means to address the critical housing shortage. They are challenging our assumption of what homes should look like and giving us an alternative vision of the home of the future.

Modular housing is revolutionising the way we will live. The construction is simplifying the homebuilding process as components are produced in factories, shipped in sections to the site and built together by smaller crews, all of which could help solve the growing housing deficit. That said, currently modular homes are less popular in the UK than other counties and there has been a slow uptake in this as a solution which is partly down to the stigma associated with post war prefab housing and the perception of temporary rather than long term housing.

Estimates suggest that off-site built modular homes take half the time of traditional construction, with fewer onsite accidents, consistent quality of build and less wastage due to the precision of robotic automation and therefore more environmentally friendly. So it’s key to overcome the negative perception and embrace a new wave of modular housing. Attractive modern, energy efficient designs such as Huf Haus have had a slow but steady uptake over recent years, and SIPS (structural insulated panels) have become mainstream in the drive for faster building and energy efficiency. What is interestingly is that more British companies are now leading the way in modular homes, Laing O’Rouke have created a purpose built factory in Worksop with the ability to produce 10,000 modular homes per year and believe they can build a new home at a third of the cost in half the time. Berekley Homes have recently invested in a new factory in Kent with the aim to build 1,000 homes each year. Similarly Legal & General set up a factory in Leeds with a view to build 3,000 homes each year and Urban Splash are taking regeneration to a new level with their innovative design schemes in both London and Manchester.

Currently 15,000 new homes in Britain are built using offsite construction, the capacity is restricted because only a small number of modular building factories are in existence. The Governments 2017 housing white paper states that it wants to see an increase in these technologies and to improve finance to support small and medium size developers. The Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) will invest £3bn in modular construction factories and is in discussions with developers to fulfil the Government’s target of 100,000 modular homes a year by 2020.

But it’s not solely modular homes that can provide a solution to the UK’s housing crisis. There are other ways developers are being innovative in the mass construction of homes in quicker timescales. Bricklaying robots are already a reality on construction sites across the world. These robots can lay bricks faster and more accurately at 3,000 bricks a day, six times more than an experienced bricklayer can do. Robots on building sites will become the norm, because they can accomplish the work of multiple labourers, are more accurate, improve safety, less prone to bad weather and are never in need of a lunch break!

Balfour Beatty’s vision is that by 2050 the construction site will be human-free. Robots will work in teams to build complex structures with the integrated use of drones flying overhead to scan the site inspecting work and using the data to predict and solve problems before they arise, sending messages back to robotic cranes, diggers and automated systems.

The trend of young people continuing to shun a career in the sector is set to grow with a lack of appetite for outdoor manual work, so robots will definitely alleviate the pressure of fewer skilled workers. The integration of robots on building sites mean that projects don’t require a large number of labourers and their reliability allows for projects to be completed on time. Whilst the number of labourers required will reduce, there will be a shift in the type of roles created to manage the automation, in programming and in robotic technology, which may mean in the long run young people will ultimately be attracted to roles in the sector again.

These are exciting times for the construction industry and robotics will play a huge part in shaping the direction of how we build homes in the future. We are delighted to be working with both large and small companies on new innovative products that challenge the normal home building methods, clients who are embracing robots and automation in their factories to be future proofing. While the modular market in the UK is slowing growing, other countries have it as core in their construction mix. Interestingly there is a thriving market in Japan and Germany, who also happen to be two of the world’s leading manufacturers of industrial robotics – surely no coincidence. Which leads to an interesting chicken and egg question – will increased automation in factories drive acceptance of modular homes? Or will the need for modular homes drive increased automation in our factories?

Madina Barker

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