October 16, 2017 - Comments Off on Energy-efficient modular London houses
Private businesses offer small solutions to London’s housing crisis. by Emma Crichton-Miller in 1900, London County Council opened arguably the world’s first council estate. On ground previously occupied by one of London’s most notorious slums, the Old Nichol rookery, between Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road, Boundary Estate arose. These handsome brick-built five-storey blocks of two- to three-bedroom flats had, among other amenities, a row of workshops for the skilled craftsmen — blacksmiths, tailors, furniture makers, cigar-makers — who, alongside policemen, nurses and clerks, made up the buildings’ inhabitants. Today, one of the now Grade II-listed units of Cleve Workshops is home to a new enterprise. Tucked into a tiny space alongside fashion designers, a leather craftsman and a barber, the business Land Converter is one of a number of private efforts — by architects, artists, property developers and entrepreneurs — to confront and tackle London’s contemporary housing crisis, through often small-scale initiatives.
Land Converter builds prefabricated, energy-efficient modular London houses, designed by prizewinning architects, on unused rooftops or as replacements for derelict garage spaces or dilapidated garden sheds. The smallest designs are for 52 sq metre one- or two-bedroom homes intended for two people, which sell, company director Philip Bueno de Mesquita tells me, for “a price equivalent to an average two-up-two-down London terrace in the same area”. Land Converter’s prices are still above what most young people can afford. Today, the lack of affordable housing in London is a critical issue both in terms of starter homes for young key workers such as schoolteachers or in retaining creative talent once individuals need more space to start a family. There are a few rays of hope. London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Affordable Homes Programme, funded by £3.15bn from the government, promises that work will have started on 90,000 new affordable homes by 2021 (ie the rent will be no more than 80 per cent of the average local market rent; for homes to buy, the definition is much less clear).
While in Britain the issue is most acute in London, where property has become such a highly valued international commodity, similar emergencies confront authorities and planners in New York, Beijing, Sydney and San Francisco.
Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture and recently appointed as the Mayor’s Design Advocate, says: “These cities are growing exponentially. They provide a lifestyle people are looking for.” Arklow Road by Pocket Living Naked House is one imaginative response to this housing crisis. The initiative was set up by four young professionals, dissatisfied with the choice of affordable housing on offer, and convinced, says co-founder Neil Double, that “creative people can make savings and come up with solutions”. They have teamed up with architecture studio OMMX, based in Enfield, north London, to offer homes stripped back to the barest essentials — with no internal walls, floors or finishes. Naked House secures land from local authorities at an affordable price, supported by finance from the Greater London Authority but also private social investors, arranges planning and sets up a community of owners.
Naked House then sticks around to help them finish their houses, over as long a period of time as it takes. Naked House, a not-for-profit business, earns a fee for managing the project. While households with an income under the Mayor’s threshold of £90,000 are eligible to be considered for a home on a development, Naked House hopes to give first place to people on local median household incomes — ie around £32,000-£35,000 — or first-time buyers already living or working in the area. The properties will be sold leasehold (the freeholder being the council, to whom a small fixed land rent will be payable annually) for between £150,000 and £350,000 — well below the £482,000 average house price in London, according to Land Registry data — and buyers will need to sign a covenanting lease to pass on the discount, which is up to 40 percentage points, to future buyers.
As Double says: “We don’t want people buying them, doing them up and flipping them.” The first project is a development of 22 homes, mostly mews-style houses, on three sites in Enfield. Double says: “Over 800 people have signed up via our website. There is room for new operators to innovate.” Pocket is another specialist affordable housing developer. One of its projects can be seen beside a railway bridge near Lambeth Palace: small-scale apartment buildings on Sail Street and Juxon Street.
Pocket’s chief executive, Marc Vlessing, a Dutch-born London-based entrepreneur who was once finance director of NatWest’s investment banking business, has spent 12 years scrutinising the issue of affordable housing. Rather than leaving owners to complete their homes, Vlessing provides identical modular one-bedroom apartments, built off-site, assembled and then clad to reflect the local environment. They are sold outright at a discount of at least 20 per cent less than the surrounding market rate to first-time buyers and other qualifying homeseekers. A younger sister business, Pocket Edition, creates two- to three-bedroom apartments at a market rate, for higher-income homeowners.
Standing in an example of what have been referred to as micro-homes (at 38 sq metres they just squeak in above the 37 sq metre legal minimum for a one-bedroom dwelling), everything has been thought of. As Vlessing says: “There is nothing about the spec that is cheap.” The light-enabling wall-length windows, the ways doors close and open, the cupboard design, the relatively high ceilings, the shared outdoor space and the secure bicycle parks. All you need do is declutter and move in.
Vlessing gets access to awkward brownfield sites no large property developer will tackle, he builds more than the minimum 15 units, beyond which developers are usually required to provide some affordable housing, and sells homes for between £165,000 in zone four and £332,000 in zone one. This is not social housing, but Vlessing’s commitment to providing homes has won him government support, including a £25m investment from the office of the Mayor of London in August. According to the company’s website, its customers are mostly single, on an average annual income of £42,000 and around 50 per cent are key workers. While Vlessing’s business has grown from an initial 30 units a year in 2005 to more than 200 in 2016, these are small dents in a monstrous problem. The larger vision of, say, architect Peter Barber, whose bold notion of a Hundred Mile City, of low-rise, high-density living, encircling London, replacing what he refers to as the broken dream of 1930s suburbia, would require a wholesale commitment from government and the public. But Peter Murray says: “I am optimistic both that politicians have woken up to the enormity of the problem they are facing and that there is innovative thinking on all this.”
There are an increasing number of ingenious ways to think about how we re-densify London’s neighbourhoods in a way that isn’t prohibitively expensive for the buyer. So it is always really exciting to be included in any survey of different innovative approaches that are being undertaken across the city, but when it is the Financial Times pulling things together that makes it particularly thrilling, not least because journalist Emma Crichton Miller has done such a thorough job of investigating the different policy directives, social trends and genuine entrepreneurship that are now being directed into the field of development.
We know a little of Pocket of course being in a similar field but great to see how they’ve grown from 30 units a year in 2005 to more than 200 in 2016. Yes that is small scale compared to the size of the housing shortage but for Marc Vlessing that is a huge mark-up. And if you begin to patch together the changes in regulatory framework, the support from city and national government and also the work being done on delivering housing cheaply it begins to add up. Sure, things will need to scale up another order to finish the job but it is great to see people innovating: in terms of finance and construction in an industry which is supposed to be conservative.