Mark II: Can renowned architect Richard Rogers solve the housing crisis?

As housing shortage bites, the architect is having a second crack at a solution

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The Independent Online

It was hailed as a solution to the housing crisis – cheap, affordable and quick-to-build  prefabricated homes, fashionably designed by one of the country’s leading architects.

But while Richard Rogers’ landmark Oxley Woods development won industry awards for its experimental and environmentally friendly design, mass orders for the off-the-peg homes did not follow, after the project was beset by problems.

Six years on, Rogers’ firm, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners (RSHP), is set to reveal an improved “Mark II” version of its pre-fab housing at a Royal Academy exhibition in a few weeks.

Whereas the original design featured smaller, low-rise units, suitable for rural locations, the second has multiple-storey apartment blocks that can be applied to densely-packed urban environments where housing demand is greatest.

The timing is perfect. Amid the grip of austerity, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander last week committed £3bn to affordable housing to kick-start the “biggest public housing programme for over 20 years”. With it came a demand for 165,000 new affordable homes by 2018 – meaning clever and sustainable designs are not only badly needed, but now, crucially, potentially part-funded by government.

When building started in Oxley Wood, near Milton Keynes, in 2007, RSHP’s design was seen as ground-breaking, with the pre-fab panels erected using flat-pack building methods to create a cheaper and more efficient home.

It meant a house shell and core could be built in 24 hours, though the inside required finishing, and negated the need for scaffolding. Widespread praise followed and the next year the project was awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects prestigious Manser Medal, with judges saying the project “achieves something which should have happened 60 years ago,” and “points the way forward to achieving high environmental standards in quality house-building where design comes first”.

But Rogers, whose better-known projects include the Pompidou Centre, and the Millennium Dome, faced criticism after some properties suffered leaks, over its green credentials, and other problems, leading to the last phase of the project – 122 of 145 homes were built – remaining still uncompleted.

“There were lessons to be learnt and all of the problems were rectified, but you are bound to get this with pioneering technology,” concedes Andrew Partridge, associate partner at RSHP.

He said the new models had entirely prefabricated components, and met zero-carbon requirements for sustainable homes standards. “The houses are fire proof and water resistant and the new six-storey apartment, containing 24 units, can be built in little over four weeks,” he said.

RSHP will not be drawn on the likely cost of each home, but estimates the timber-framed houses are up to  40 per cent cheaper than their brick and mortar equivalents.

While those who took the plunge to be Oxley Woods “pioneers” tended to be bohemian earlier adopters, willing to relocate –architects, designers, photographers – the new design means that as well as creating more of what some dub “Noddy houses” in the “Legoland” near Milton Keynes, the design has also been adopted for urban spaces – with the ability to stack housing on top of each other. RSHP has applications lodged with several London councils with a number at the pre-planning stage.

“It has been a very hard route and we have spent a lot of money and time on research and development,” Mr Partridge said. “Local authorities are now seeing that these houses could help with things like fuel poverty. We are looking at a reduction of about 80 per cent in fuel costs.”

RSHP believes that, if approved, these first projects will produce a snowball effect, and said it has the capacity to produce 7,800 houses per year across 10 regional factories – potentially creating thousands of jobs.

There are also applications outside housing, Mr Partridge said. “They are great for schools as they are quick, effective, can be built over the summer holiday and are energy efficient.”

It is understood that the design also raises the prospect of users one day being able use the internet to order made-to-measure homes at a fraction of the current cost of building houses.

Ivan Harbour, Senior Partner at RSHP added: “There is serious interest both here and abroad in the construction system …We have had to work far harder to explain and develop the idea than we could have imagined because the design and construction is challenging the norm.”

Legoland? His first attempt at affordable housing

Taxi drivers call it Legoland. But the people who live in the multi-coloured prefabricated homes designed by Richard Rogers in Oxley Woods are more than happy with the community it has created.

Built – or, rather, put together – in 2007 by Taylor Wimpey, the award-winning development is home  to graphic designers, architects, hairdressers and IT specialists. Many of the couples are mixed ethnicity, gay or elderly. In a sample survey of residents 18 months after completion  every single one said they would recommend the development to family and friends.  

Rogers was responding to the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott’s Design for Manufacture challenge to create a house that could be built from modern materials for £60,000. The 122 homes are designed to be constructed in three days from full-height insulated wall panels, and although there were teething problems with leaks and faulty doors and windows, residents say there is nowhere else they’d rather live.

“People are buoyed up by living in these houses – they are really different,” retired architect Barbara Swann, who downsized to the development in 2007, told the Architects’ Journal.

Hairdresser Gemma Mccann, who bought her home for £180,000 in 2007, told the publication: “We have formed an amazing community over the years of living here and I think it has a lot to do with the uniqueness of our houses.”