One year after resident Debbie Norris moved into her factory-built semi – a scheme dreamt up by Wimpey, the Guinness Trust and Britspace to prove that modular was a good way to build a new home – she had a few bones to pick with representatives from the alliance. But there was one thing she really loved: the house looked completely normal
A lot can happen in two years. At the end of 1999 volume housebuilder Wimpey, housing association The Guinness Trust and modular building maker Britspace were trumpeting their alliance to test factory build housing principles and showing off the first prototype pair of semis to Hull MP, John Prescott.

Just over 40 homes have been built as a result of the alliance, with Britspace making the homes and Wimpey carrying out the site works for two Guinness Trust sites in Chelmsford and Romford, in Essex. Chelmsford's 23 two- and three-bedroom houses were completed about a year ago, and are closely based on the product prototyped at Britspace's factory in Gilberdyke, Hull. Homes were made from steel framed modules – generally just four, each one effectively a quarter section – and topped with prefabricated steel roof panels.

Around 80-90% of each house was built in the factory: modules arrived on site with kitchens and bathrooms fully fitted and tiled, walls were clad in brick slips bonded to metal panels, and roofs were covered in Eternit tiles. Site work was confined to laying foundations, connecting the modules and landscaping. Scheme cost was £2.1m, with grant input of £840,000.

In producing the homes, the alliance found itself severely tested, not so much by the technical challenge of modular build as by the merger activity that has dominated the private sector housebuilding scene. Wimpey has been the most active UK housebuilder on the merger front, consolidating its McLean Homes operation and acquiring Alfred McAlpine Homes, and along the way there have been redundancies and staff changes. Wimpey's regional director and procurement director who had a key role in driving the project were among the departures, and the boardroom activity has had consequences for the alliance and for the residents living in the modular houses.

I expected it to be quite flimsy. Now i look at it as a normal house

Debbie Norris

What the tenants thought…
Debbie Norris lives in a two-bedroom terraced house with her two daughters, while Trish Stutely lives in a three-bedroom house just around the corner. Norris previously lived in an apartment, and Stutely in a "horrible" ex-council house. "This is 50 times better," says the latter. "I wouldn't want to move from it. I had 15 years of living in a freezing cold house."

When the initial prototype houses were unveiled at the Britspace factory, they came in for some criticism for the ordinariness of their design and their resemblance to a housebuilder's standard housetype. That is now part of their appeal for the occupants. "People look at them and think they are private houses," says Stutely. "From the outside you wouldn't believe it was a modular house," says Norris. "I expected it to be quite flimsy. Now I look at it as a normal house, although in a storm I did worry about it getting struck by lightning."

Guinness Trust told all tenants that their houses had been been built in a factory and issued an information booklet explaining the construction method, which also included helpful advice on how to hang pictures and shelves on the unconventional walls. A large mirror hanging in Debbie's lounge shows tenants have not been afraid to put the theory to the test.

Both have wasted no time in decorating their houses and like the fact that there has been no need to live with boring magnolia walls for the first year as these houses should not suffer from drying shrinkage cracking. "The walls are easy to decorate. There are no lumps and bumps," says Stutely. There have also been significant advantages in sound reduction and energy efficiency, with Stutely saying her heating bills have halved. They like the layout of their homes and the space, which at 79.96 m2 for a two-bedroom unit is the Guinness Trust standard. "Normally new houses are small," says Norris.

The steel panelled roof gives the houses the advantage of a usable loft which tenants are turning into storage space. Storage space throughout the house is generous, with both Stutely and Norris particularly liking the garden shed, a Guinness Trust standard feature, and the trendy coloured kitchen units.

The relation-ship has not been ideal, with us being the third party in a scheme

Graham Townend, Britspace sales and marketing director

The houses still look good on the outside, with no sign that the brick slip exteriors are standing up to wear and tear less well than full bricks, but a number of ongoing defects on the inside are a source of great aggravation to residents. Most of the problems have little to do with the house's modular technology. "There have been a lot of niggling defects," says Norris. "The internal doors are terrible. Door handles keep falling off." As she warms to the subject, she tells of other tenants having problems with leaking pipes, breaking showers and cracking. Stutely points out that she has had problems with her boiler.

The biggest cause of aggravation, however, has been not so much the problems, but getting them dealt with. "We've had to phone and phone about problems. It gets frustrating," says Norris. "The problem at the moment is that we feel that nobody is listening to us."

The client and the manufacturer respond…
Nick Bampton, Guinness Trust regional technical manager and Graham Townend, Britspace sales and marketing director were in the firing line when Stutely and Norris voiced their frustration. Wimpey was invited to send a representative to take part in the feedback session, but declined.

Townend was surprised by the tenants' gripes. "I've not heard about any of these problems," he says. "There seems to have been a lack of passing information through." Tenants report problems to Guinness Trust's local housing management and maintenance team which, as the homes are still within the contractor's defects liability period, passes them on to the customer care department of Wimpey's local McLean division. "We would do things differently in future," says Townend. "The relationship has not been ideal, with us being the third party in a scheme."

The site is coming up to its 12-month inspection and Guinness Trust will be surveying tenants as part of that process, and hopefully dealing with the problems. "The residents are still very positive – it is a matter of dealing with the ongoing gripes," says Bampton.

The two projects have produced a lot of lessons, but have realised the initial objective. "Our aim was to demonstrate that modular was a satisfactory way of building new homes," says Bampton. "The projects were to build normal homes, we didn't want them to look different."

"They look ordinary, but should be better than ordinary homes, because of advantages like the sound insulation and low running costs," says Townend.

Project Team

The Guinness Trust
Mason Richards
Wimpey/McLean Homes/Britspace
Employer’s agent
Kim Sangster Associates