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Legacy of Prescott, the £60,000 man


John Prescott's challenge to house builders to create homes with a build cost of £60,000 pushed the jaded volume builders to innovate in technology and design.

But will it have a lasting impact? Emma Crates reports

IF A WEEK is a long time in politics, 18 months can encompass the rise and decline of empires. Just a year and a half ago, the Deputy Prime Minister was enthroned at the ODPM, firing broadsides at the construction sector over its costs, and launching a house design competition which was derided by many for having impossible targets.

Mr Prescott may have lost his office. He may have become more of a figure of political fun in recent months, but the Design for Manufacture competition could be his greatest legacy.

Mr Prescott's beef was with costs. Between 1993 and is 2004, the cost of building in that sector increased by 77 per cent. And over the past couple of years the Mr Prescott could be heard lambasting house builders, urging them to shake up their supply chains and iron out the cost inflation, particularly with regard to non-mater ial costs such as labour and plant.

His challenge to indust ry to come up with house designs that cost £60,000 to const ruct (but were not the final sale price) were criticised when they were first launched. But since then, the construction sector has undergone a remarkable philosophical sea change.

'When we started this competition we were told that £60,000 for the building costs was an unrealistic target and couldn't be done, ' says Trevor Beattie, director of English Partnerships and the man responsible for the competition. 'The talk at that time was all about skills shortages and costs. Now we're being told that the target is not a hurdle. People are telling us that the cost issues are more to do with planning, land prices and infrastructure.' The competition brought together teams that were unprecedented. Star architects such as make and Richard Rogers Partnership teamed up with volume builders and modular construction specialists in the quest for innovation.

And, although the competition brief was criticised at the beginning for being too tight and very expensive to enter, 53 consortia took the plunge and nine winning consortia were chosen, of which six have bid for sites successfully.

It has also thrust the so-called modular methods of construction into the mainstream, sparked a muchneeded debate about design and pushed builders to focus on energy efficiency. For some manufacturers, this has not come a moment too soon.

'The competition has promoted interest and demonstrated that modern methods of construction are capable of achieving a house for £60,000, a figure which may have been viewed cynically before this, ' says Patrick Dormon, managing director of Space4, now part of the Persimmon Group.

'The irony is that the technology we are using has been used in Eu rope for more than 40 years, ' adds Ter ry Gamble, director of William Verry, which is using a timber panel-framed system from German specialist WeberHaus. 'It's only in this count ry that we'`re calling it modern methods of construction.' But Mr Gamble freely adm its that he would have found it more difficult to bring the system to the UK market had he not had a vehicle such as the Design for Manufacture competition.

Jeff Tomlinson, national sales manager for Kingspan TEK Building System, agrees.

'Contractors have tended to be conservative, shying away from the unknown. The problem of getting our products to market in the past have had more to do with prejudice than technical problems, ' he says.

The competition has already had a positive effect on Kingspan's output. Supplier to the SixtyK consortium, which was won two of the coveted sites, the company has increased its output of TEK ? a structural integrated panel system ? by 25 percent.

And it could be the start of something much bigger.

Kingspan's factory in Germany currently produces a thousand homes a year, but has capacity to manufacture up to 20,000 homes. Its business plan is to supply that amount to the UK by 2010.

But, while certain modular systems have scored highly, others have suffered due to supply problems. In the initial bid stages, the Wimpey consortium kept its options open with three different systems: brick and block, light steel frame or timber frame.

But ultimately Wimpey will only be using timber frame on its Oxley Park site in Milton Keynes.

'Unfortunately, the steel-frame manufacturer that we were talking to couldn't deliver sufficient quantities.

Achieving capacity is one of the problems with advanced technology companies, ' says Graeme Dodds, business development manager with George Wimpey.

For HTA, working with the Barratt consortium, there were some lessons to be learnt on exactly how sophisticated a modular system should be.

'We had done quite a bit of work with system-built housing, but never anything quite as sophisticated as the Barratt Advanced Housing Factory, ' comments Simon Bayliss, project leader with HTA. The panel system, manufactured by Terrapin in a joint venture with Barratt, has windows, sockets, light switches and wiring installed at factory stage.

'We found that it was almost too sophisticated, it limited our flexibility in design, ' he adds.

This is the first time that the system, which is usually used to build traditional styles, is being incorporated into more contemporary designs. So, to give the design team more flexibility, Mr Bayliss is proposing that in future projects certain elements such as light switches are fitted on site.

One of the Countryside Consortium's offerings goes even further than Barratt's in terms of fixed design. Its BUMA volumetric housing system, a massive steelframed modular system from Poland, can be erected in a day, with all plumbing and mechanical and electrical requirements plugged straight into services on site.

Aside from the speed, one advantage is that it can achieve a greater floor space for the same cost as other systems.

But Countryside is approaching the market cautiously and also using a timber-framed system, as business development director Michael Hill explains.

'BUMA is still very new to the UK. This is the first time that it is being used for houses here. We're also using an open panel timber frame system elsewhere on site, because our customers and clients are more familiar with timber systems.' But he adds that, if BUMA proves popular, Countryside will start using it on the open market.

Although critical of poor design at early bidding stages Mr Beattie is pleased with the final results.

To get to final bidding stage, several of the consortia par t icularly had to up their game in u rban design (the general layout of houses and st reets). For Mr Beattie, the key lesson was that urban design should not be separated out from individual house design.

'There has to be interaction between the two disciplines, ' he says. 'These houses are designed to be flexible and expandable. It is important to think about how they may be adapted in the future.' The competition is now drawing to a close, with just one site ? Merton ? still waiting for the announcement of a successful bidder.

This should be decided by the end of July.

The procedure has not been without its critics. Mr Hill complains that the competition, which will create 1,100 houses in total, will not have the impact of previous initiatives because it has been too small in scale.

'Design for Manufacture is spread across too many sites to have a huge impact on an organisation. I would have liked to have seen a smaller number of sites but with a greater amount of development on each one.

The amount of effort and resources needed for this competition has been considerable. It would have been bet ter if we could have got schemes of a meaningful size, say upwards of 500 homes.' But Mr Beattie does not agree.

'We were aiming to inf luence the market rather than create volume. And when we were going out to tender the competition was just as intense for the smallest plot (which had just 12 homes) as for the largest, which had 180.' He is now hoping that the lessons learnt in this compet it ion will be picked up by other public sector landowners, such as local authorities, and that the Government will take a closer look at how environmental performance is aligned with quality.

'We have a thousand house designs. We can throw out the old design books, ' he says.

There are signs that the ideas are already fermenting into the system which could benefit other sectors.

William Verry, for example, is working with make to develop its modular concept for schools, nurseries and commercial buildings.

'We hope that we will reach a conclusion, in terms of design, and hopefully have a live project by the end of next year, ' says Mr Gamble.

Mr Dodd of Wimpey, is not sure, at this stage, whether the competition will have a massive impact on his company's house building activities, 'The methods and technology that we are using here are not the solution to the volumes that we need to produce every year, ' he says.

'However, this has been a catalyst for internal change, and we have a list of initiatives in the research and development stage which have all emerged from the competition.' The real test of the success of th is project, of course, will be when people actually start living in these new homes. Mr Beattie is pledging that he will return to the matter in a year's time, getting feedback from residents and finding out just how adaptable and flexible a £60,000 home really is. Only then will we really know whether John Prescott was right.