Absolutely pre-fab

The cost of city-centre living is shooting up, but developers are using new construction techniques to keep prices at bay
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The Independent Online

Think city-centre chic, think big money. These days, a one-bedroom apartment in any thriving hub will boast top-level specifications - hardwood floors, integrated appliances, perhaps a balcony or terrace - and a matching price tag. But some developers are beginning to acknowledge that first-time buyers are becoming less able to afford high-price homes, and are hoping that using the most modern building methods will help keep prices within reach of most pockets.

Think city-centre chic, think big money. These days, a one-bedroom apartment in any thriving hub will boast top-level specifications - hardwood floors, integrated appliances, perhaps a balcony or terrace - and a matching price tag. But some developers are beginning to acknowledge that first-time buyers are becoming less able to afford high-price homes, and are hoping that using the most modern building methods will help keep prices within reach of most pockets.

Urban Splash is pioneering a modular housing development that uses off-site construction methods. Moho, located on a prime site in central Manchester, will comprise 102 apartments that are being fully assembled and snag tested in a factory before arriving on site and being craned into place on the stainless steel "spine". "Moho is the first private residential development in the UK to be built using this construction technique," Lisa Ashurst, the communications manager at Urban Splash, says. "Prices start at £139,000 for the one-bedroom apartment and are capped at £200,000 for the two-bedroom apartment. We reckon it's a pretty good deal - especially as each is kitted out with a unique range of Italian designer furniture."

Moho offers three apartment types, ranging from 500 to 700 sq ft inclusive of the balcony. The interiors are impressive, with timber floors, a fully fitted kitchen and bathrooms and sliding doors, all in place when the apartments arrive on site.

Urban Splash has ambitious plans and even considers the technique as a potential solution to the south-east's housing problems. "We're not branding Moho as an affordable housing development," explains Ashurst, "it is simply priced lower than a lot of other developments. We think the modular housing concept could be made affordable in the future though, because the unit-construction cost is fixed so it doesn't really matter where geographically the development is. If Moho is successful, we think we could roll it out to other areas of the country and perhaps it could be considered to help the south-east with affordable housing."

Ask Developments is also offer a version of low-cost city-centre living and to this end set up a subsidiary, Abito, six months ago to look at possible solutions. "There are a lot of young professionals and white-collar workers who aspire to city-centre living but who are excluded by price," explains Les Lang, the managing director of Abito. "For example, in Manchester, a decent one-bedroom flat will set you back between £140,000 and £150,000. That's simply beyond many people's reach. Our idea was to increase affordability by making the unit much more compact."

And thus was born the idea of the "abito". The brainchild of interior designer Jasper Sanders, and architect Gavin Elliot of Building Design Partnership, the abito aims to offer "sophisticated living"in just 347 sq ft. The design of the apartment centres around a four-sided pod that divides the space into two; one area for sleeping - complete with fold-down bed, fold-out work station and integrated wardrobes and storage - and one for living - complete with floor-to-ceiling window, optional built-in flat-screen television and a sizeable, private balcony.

The pod itself is an ingenious feat of engineering that incorporates all the essential appliances of a home. One side contains wardrobes, drawers and other storage; another a utility room complete with boiler, washing machine and dryer; another features a compact kitchen with dishwasher, fridge, combination oven, two-ring hob and cupboard space; the final side contains a bathroom. "The essence of the brief was to eliminate as much dead space as possible and make a home in a compact way," Sanders explains. "The abito is about trying to get the most out of a minimum amount of space. I simply picked up all the stuff that you have to have - a shower tray, a toilet, a dishwasher, a fridge - and tried and configure it into something very small. By placing this unit in the centre of the flat you are able use all the space around it. The ceilings are 3.4m high so you really do get a sense of space."

The Abito team built a full-size mock-up of the apartment and have been tweaking the design for several months. They are now convinced they have perfected the unit and are seeking suitable sites across the UK. The first site has been identified in Manchester city centre and the proposed building is surprisingly attractive - a three-sided tower of polished concrete and glass with 24-hour concierge service and an airy central atrium criss-crossed by walkways. There will be 256 units available and prices will start at £85,000. Though still awaiting planning consent, Abito are confident construction will start in November.

Not everyone is enthused by the concept. Marc Ramsbottom, a Liberal Democrat councillor who sits on Manchester's Planning and Highways Committee, says: "I'm not opposed [to the abito] in principle but to my mind they go against the aim of creating a sustainable city centre here in Manchester. There is already a large proportion of single-bedroom accommodation, but a lack of two- and three-bedroom apartments. When these single people settle down and want to start a family they will end up leaving the city if we do not ensure a sufficient balance of accommodation. At the moment my view is that this will not create that balance and is inappropriate."

But Lang at Abito remains defiant. "I really feel that the abito answers a need, not just by providing housing in cities but also by regenerating cities economically," he says. "At present many young people who study at one of the universities in Manchester will leave once they have graduated. If cities can create both dynamic industries for these people to work in and high-quality, affordable housing for them to live in, we have a good chance of stemming the graduate exodus to London."

Abito has also identified sites in Salford, Nottingham, Liverpool and Sheffield and hopes to roll out the building method across the UK over the next five years.

Moho information from the Urban Splash Loft Shop (07000 373737; www.urbansplash.co.uk)

For further information on Abito or its eponymous product, visit www.abito.co.uk

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