The industry needs to look differently at non-traditional construction methods - they could help solve the housing crisis.

Ashwin Halaria

The never ending debate about the UK’s housing crisis rumbles on. You can hardly open a newspaper without reading something about it, but here I am writing another article on the subject. Of course, the reality is that it remains a deadly serious issue and thus gets the publicity it deserves. Yet despite all the debate, it remains unsolved.

Part of what makes it difficult is that many different parts of the puzzle need to be solved. The UK’s slow, complicated and ever changing planning system must be reformed to speed up the application process, removing uncertainties for housebuilders and encouraging them to build. Underutilised public land needs to be freed-up for development, and in London more brownfield land should be built on. 

On 15 August I was struck by a Channel 4 Dispatches programme that highlighted just how challenging the situation is. Over the past five years only half the houses required have been built, despite government plans meant to help solve the problem dating back to 2011. Land sold off by government departments for housebuilding just isn’t being developed, with only a tiny fraction of the potential number of homes having been built. 

Although the construction industry can help lobby to change these issues, only the government holds the power to truly make a difference. So where can we really help? For me, the answer is by embracing innovative, non-traditional construction methods that deliver significant cost savings and make housing projects more viable. And in a post Brexit vote environment this is more important than ever. 

An end to, or restrictions on “free movement” will almost certainly increase labour costs. Government figures show that 12% of the industry’s 2.1 million workers come from abroad and mainly the EU. While in London the proportion of EU workers is even larger. I was speaking with one London based contractor recently who estimated 75% of his workforce were eastern European.

Many of these workers may not pass whatever points based system is presumably introduced. According to the CIOB, the industry will need to find an additional 224,000 workers by 2019 to meet the overall pipeline of work.

It is time for change. We can’t control political or macroeconomic factors, but we can embrace innovative, non-traditional construction methods that will improve efficiencies and help offset these issues.

This is far from ideal when we already face a chronic skills shortage. The estimated 220,000 homes that need to be built annually to meet demand look even further away. In addition, sterling’s rapid fall means importing materials from most parts of the world has just become much more expensive, further jeopardising projects in an industry that imports 64% of its materials from the EU. 

It is time for change. We can’t control political or macroeconomic factors, but we can embrace innovative, non-traditional construction methods that will improve efficiencies and help offset these issues. But too often there is a resistance to them, a misunderstanding and a misconception about the benefits they deliver.

Take cross laminated timber (CLT). It is perceived as being more expensive than say, traditional steel frame structures or concreate, but when the onsite efficiencies it creates are boiled down, projects are usually delivered quicker, with less labour and site risks. Fabricated efficiently offsite, a CLT storey can be erected within a week, foundation costs are also reduced, and CLT is perfect for the spans on residential projects. Overall it is almost certainly comparable with traditional forms of construction such as steel frame. In addition, with timber panels typically being 120mm to 180 mm wide, CLT buildings are much more resistant to fire than many realise, meeting all necessary regulations.

True, CLT isn’t new. It has been around for 10 to 15 years, but despite being efficient and a sustainable form of construction, design teams still resist it as “new” and “unproven” because they’d rather do things the same old way. Load bearing masonry, a technology used by the Romans, is still considered the preferred method of construction.

Attitudes need to change. We are currently working on a large retirement village project in Falmouth, where construction needs to complete within 12 months. This tight brief meant CLT was the best option because it would speed up the construction process. The client was forward thinking enough to embrace it, and will reap the rewards in terms of cost and time saved.

With costs likely to rise and an ever greater need for housing, ensuring projects remain viable is key. Forward thinking and innovative methods of construction are required now more than ever.

Ashwin Halaria is an associate at London-based structural engineering consultancy Symmetrys