No, prefabs won\’t work

The cheap housing method, whereby homes are built off-site and dropped into place, is once again the future of building, according to an independent report commissioned by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

But while today’s versions – dubbed “modular” homes – are still low-cost, with prices starting at £20,000, they boast state-of-the-art design and impressive \”green\” credentials.

Pre-fabs got a bad name for shoddy design and poor construction after they were churned out by the thousands to solve the post-war housing crisis.

The reason this won\’t work is because the problem we have with UK housing (most especially in the SE and London) isn\’t that a house itself is too expensive. Sure, prefabs could being down that part of it from £100,000 ish to that £20,000 ish (although I would imagine that it would be more than £20,000 for a prefab 3 bedder, while construction costs for something the size of a prefab would be less than £100,000 using traditional methods) asnd that would be nice.

The problem though is the cost of land upon which you are allowed to put a house. Planning permission in short.

It\’s Mr Wadsworth who has in the past done the numbers for us but I seem to recall that it\’s something like £100,000 a house and up just from the planning permission.

For example, there was a case where the court had to decide about whether the planning permission for houses which had been destroyed in the war was still valid. As there was an act that said that any house which had been blown up could be rebuilt they decided that it was. So, a corner of a park in south London, which had once had 6 (mebbe 8) houses on it was not worth the £15,000 the council put on it as a piece of the park. It was worth the £1.5 million that land with planning permission was worth.

Agricultural land can be bought in the SE for £8,000 a hectare these days. Bad stuff, bad agricultural land for less. Get planning permission on such and it goes well over £1 million a hectare.

To really be able to provide cheap and good housing we\’ve got to deal with this problem as well. If we were allowed to put £30,000 (so, a little larger) prefabs on land that cost £8,000 a hectare then we really could have affordable housing for all. Just to be extreme, say £10,000 a house for connecting all the services to low density developments, say 4-8 a hectare. 3 bed houses with quarter to half acres gardens for under £50,000 each.

To provide 80,000 houses a year (the desired goal apparently) we would be building over 0.08% to 0.16% of England each year (10,000-20,000 hectares of the 13,043,900), or in a decade we would expand the built environment from the current 10% ish to 11% ish.

We can absolutely have affordable housing. We just need to clean up the planning system first.

4 thoughts on “No, prefabs won\’t work”

  1. I propose that we relax planning and zoning restrictions for the area of South Essex and North Kent that borders the Thames Estuary. Build what you like where you like. It would be a bit like Houston, another city which does not have much in the way of zoning.

    We could create a mega-city similar to what the Chinese are going to do with Shenzhen, only perhaps on a smaller scale. Projected population could be about 17 million.

    Suggested informal names (got to have a catchy name)

    Silicon Estuary
    Silicon Mudflats
    Silicon Marsh
    Hong Kong on Thames


    Already has two container ports, Tilbury and London Gateway.
    Easy access to Stansted and London City airports.
    Already has access to the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.
    Takes the development strain off other more attractive areas of the countryside.


    Environmentalists will howl in protest.
    Destroys the habitat of the Lesser Spotted Grebe Warbler (OK, I just made that up.)
    Would need a lot of infrastructure development.

    I believe there is already a master plan for this area, but nothing much is happening because various vested interests are fighting each other.

  2. Agreed, thanks for link.

    The % figures for surface area are actually even less dramatic that you say. I looked up the best databse the UK government has to offer, and about 2.1 million acres (i.e. 3.5% of surface area) is covered with homes and gardens and 1.2 million acres is roads (half of which are residential roads, call it 1% of surface area)

    So that’s 4.5% all in, so if we allowed two or three million houses to be built (increase housing stock by ten per cent) and slotted them in sensibly, it would take up 0.5% of our surface area.

    That said, we actually have plenty of housing, it’s just a question of ‘encouraging’ people to move into the right size home for their actual needs, which is argument number 73 for Land Value Tax.

  3. Say the Government said, “We want a million homes built this year, to encourage uptake we will give councils 5,000 pounds for each house on they approve that is on land currently without planning permission.”

    Would provide affordable housing, or would the prices merely reflect the prices of the current 30 million or so homes?

    And if it did produce 3-bed houses for 5 figure sums, what would it do to the prices, and the mortgages of the current stock?

  4. Not so sure modular housing is such a bad idea. Certainly might solve some of the housing problems we have at present.
    First look at the history of housing. Before the C20th not much apart from homes for the wealthy was built to last. The rest was put up to serve a purpose as economically as possible & in due course fell down or was demolished to make way for new build. Even those late Vic – Edwardian terraces that surround our cities were generally on leasehold land. It’s post WW1 you see those mock-Tudor estates appear with ancestal homes in miniature. Since then we’ve gotten to think that we build for eternity. Why?
    The trouble is that to own a house we’ve become used to the idea that you need to own the land it stands on. Crazy. You need a place to hang your hat not make a speculative investment in land prices. Then having bought it your stuck with it unless you can find somone to buy it & the land it stands on. What happens if the jobs in the area decrease?
    The objection to new houses is that for ever after the land is lost to other use. Go modular & that’s no longer a problem. Put in the basic services – electric, water, sewerage, roads. Pop down modular buildings at a density to serve the purpose. When & if they’re not needed or the land is needed for something else yank them out & resite. Services can be capped or grubbed up & the land back under the plough in a year.
    Need a bigger place? Put on an extention module. Later on, you don’t need the room – the kids have left home, detach it. Or they can take their rooms with them.Want to relocate to a different area. move house. As in move the house.
    Modules could be racked up on valuable urban land like appartments are now. Put down spread out a bit more for suburbs. Concealed in leafy valleys as retirement homes. Be delivered to areas that need housing for non-permanent projects. But all the same house.
    Imagine what that would do to local politics. Put the taxes up too much & all of a sudden you don’t have a town to tax. Keep taxes low & buildings are flocking to your area to enjoy them. You could do the same with shops, schools, offices, factorie. You name it.
    OK, we’d have to think very differently about how we live but the advantages would be enormous.

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