About turn

Essay

The construction industry is failing to deliver the housing that councils so desperately need. Isabel Allen talks to Richard Hyams about his strategy for transforming the way affordable housing is procured, financed and built, solving the housing crisis – and changing the world.

Richard Hyams has a quote by the American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead written in large letters on his studio wall.

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’

Hyams is an architect, but he is also an inventor, a problem-solver and an idealist. His practice, Astudio, is part think tank, part research laboratory, part design studio – and wholly driven by a determination to ‘leave the place better than we found it’.

Architectural projects coexist with an ongoing research programme into subjects including urban balcony farms, algae facades and plant-based air purification systems, a project which dusted off some of NASA’s research from the 1960s that sought to identify which plants were most effective in improving the quality of indoor space – the R&D team dutifully went out and bought what Hyams describes as ‘the kind of plants my Dad liked – spider plants, cheese plants’, giving a corner of the a studio office a 1970s bedsit vibe.

This spirit of enquiry is underpinned by can-do mentality – a determination to get results. The practice works with Co-Innovate, an initiative funded by London’s Brunel University and the European Regional Development Fund, which pairs up business students with London-based SMEs to create an ‘innovation ecosystem’ designed to spawn new products and services and the associated jobs and economic growth. As well as providing funding, the partnership ensures that research projects are underpinned by a solid business plan. ‘We’re a really inventive, entrepreneurial country,’ says Hyams, ‘but most of the value is being lost because we don’t know how to capitalise on our ideas.’

His current preoccupation – Amodular housing – is a case in point. There are currently some 67,000 patents for Amodular homes, yet the industry remains in its infancy while many of the patents are being applied abroad. Hyams is determined that his own prefabricated volumetric housing system – Amodular, launched in August last year and currently waiting in line to become patent 67,001 –won’t suffer the same fate. ‘We want to solve the housing crisis.’ He says cheerily. ‘It’s as simple as that.’

Changing the system

The mission was motivated by a mixture of enlightened self-interest – like many London-based employers, the practice has lost valuable staff members who have moved away from London due to prohibitive housing costs – and evangelising zeal: ‘we should be able to solve it. We wanted to use our expertise as architects to change society for the good.’

It’s a neat system. Five different modules – fabricated from lightweight steel and designed around the capacity of a standard delivery lorry – can be combined in different ways to create a variety of house types. A choice of eight different facade treatments – timber, aluminium, oxidised copper, zinc, corten steel, and two kinds of brick (traditional and contemporary) – allows for a degree of customisation to suit different contexts and clients.

It offers all the advantages you’d expect from any well-thought-through system of its kind: quality control, embedded sustainability, reduced waste, high-spec materials at reasonable cost and speedy delivery – the build stage takes less than a quarter of the time required for a traditional construction project. But its real USP is the fact that it comes as part and parcel of an overarching strategy to tackle the issues that are impeding housing delivery.

Firstly, there is the Amodular construction sector itself. Many prominent voices are arguing that modular housing is the most efficient – perhaps the only – way to deliver the 300,000 homes a year that we desperately need. Yet, despite government support, grant relief and the best efforts of manufacturers and investors, we are manifestly failing to produce in bulk. Hyams puts this down to the fact that, ‘it’s still essentially a series of cottage industries. They’re all working to their own particular rules. There’s no standardisation. The components differ from system to system. It’s a real problem for the industry. With traditional construction, if you fall out with your bricklayer, you get another one to take their place. With Amodular, if you’re committed to one factory and they go out of business or the relationship goes sour there’s nowhere else to go’.

His solution was to establish a framework panel of four different manufacturers, all of whom understand – and have the capacity to deliver – the system, ensuring that there’s a back-up if a partnership falls through.

Then there’s the way housing – particularly affordable housing where the need is most acute – is procured. ‘It’s a crazy system’, says Hyams. ‘Boroughs sell a patch of land to a developer. The developer pays over the odds to win the site, spends ages working out how to maximise profit, decides it can’t afford to build affordable housing and then spends a lot of time and effort wriggling out of the deal. The Council’s left thinking “We’ve sold off the land but we haven’t got any homes”.’

Hyams has turned this system on its head. Astudio identifies areas of public land ripe for development and approaches the Council with a business proposition. ‘We don’t make an offer on the land’, says Hyams. ‘We think public land should belong to the taxpayer.’ They give a quote to deliver a given number of homes depending on the capacity of the site. Based on a straightforward formula – £250 per square foot for up to 50 units – the cost represents a turn-key offer that guarantees planning, manufacture and construction for a fixed price.

This cost certainty opens up the possibility of new funding opportunities. Hyams has developed partnerships with pension funds and other financial institutions that will allow boroughs to borrow long-term for low-cost, and pay it back over 25-30 years.

The size of the prize

The first two Amodular schemes – two small blocks of council flats on former garage sites – are being delivered with Be First, the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham’s regeneration company, and Dorset-based modular manufacturer Rollalong. The projects themselves are modest – 8 and 13 homes respectively. But the potential is huge. At this scale, the projects are ‘just viable’. Economies of scale mean that larger projects can be delivered with 30-35 per cent knocked off the price. The mid-term aim is to build 500 units a year at optimum cost. Be First’s mission is to ensure that 50,000 new homes are built in the borough of Dagenham and Barking in the next 20 years. Over the same time period, the UK has to build 3 million affordable homes to meet its housing needs.

The combination of cost certainty, cheap finance and a reliable high-quality product makes Amodular well-positioned to claim a good chunk of the market. It could be transformational – if nobody gets greedy. The reduction in unit costs offers the potential for increased profit margins. ‘What’s the point?’ asks Hyams. ‘The whole idea is to make it cheap and easy to build as many houses as possible. We’re not doing it to maximise profit. We’re trying to change the world.’