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Why timber can drive a shifting rental market

Much has been made of residential housebuilding targets and their futility, given the dynamics of the market.

The issues are simple in economic terms: there is a skilled labour shortage and material prices are fluctuating, which are serving to exacerbate the much-needed demand for increased housing supply. Notwithstanding this, sustainability requirements will place further pressures on the UK market. Something has to give.

The UK has a diminishing resource of skilled labour. Residential housebuilding needs a step-change in terms of efficiency if it has a chance of boosting supply.

Indeed, developers logically only build what they can sell and therefore are not necessarily incentivised to deliver more quickly than that. Unless future construction methods are part of local planning policy or incentivised through market pressures, it seems unlikely that private developers will drive the change.

The biggest winner

While the focus often falls on the private sales market, it is the burgeoning pipeline of build-to-rent units that stands to benefit most from any increase in efficiency. The demographics make sense for private rental sector investment and now, at last, the market is driving the supply chain.

PRS developer and operator Essential Living recently announcing its intention to ‘go modular’ – manufacturing building sections off site and then assembling them on site. This approach is often speedier, more flexible and able to deliver a faster return on investment.

In fact, Legal & General has built an offsite factory for mass timber modular units in Yorkshire that could supply thousands of apartments a year, including its own pipeline of build-to-rent projects. There are also other developers, both affordable and premium, that have shown interest in their own factories.

It is vitally important for developers to consider material usage while focusing on modern methods of construction to increase housing supply.

Mass timber is an alternative structural material where the thickness of panels range up to around 200 mm. It’s a sturdy, precise material that’s viable for towers up to 18 storeys. The vast majority of towers proposed in London are below 20 storeys and therefore could conceivably be built from this alternative material.

Case in point

A key example of mass timber construction designed to deliver both efficiency and long-term revenue generation is Regal Homes’ Dalston Lane project designed by Waugh Thistleton.

The site, which will have High Speed 1 and Crossrail pass under it, chose cross-laminated timber as its material because it is lightweight and will also allow for a further two storeys of rental accommodation to be built on top. This is a great example of an innovative building approach with a tangible financial benefit – the ideal win-win.

Mass timber provides a tangible solution to the housing crisis alongside both modular and volumetric construction. There is no panacea – that much is clear – but is worth exploring on the majority of projects and in particular on build-to-rent schemes. Rents could be achieved more quickly due to the reduced construction programme, while financing costs would also be lowered, boosting development yields.

We only have a limited pool of resources both in terms of human capital and finance, so we need to do more with less. This year has already brought an exciting shift to the UK’s housing approach, particularly with new minister Gavin Barwell welcome encouragement for offsite construction, but this is only just the beginning.

Ashley Perry is a senior project manager in JLL’s project management team and member of the Urban Land Institute’s Young Leaders Committee in the UK and Europe

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