The Peabody Trust’s latest exercise in modular housing at Barons Place, west London, houses key workers in compact-and-bijou microflats. We mind our head and step inside a new fun-sized way of living.

Don't supersize me
Don't supersize me

Despite turning much of its considerable energy and resources to upgrading its existing housing stock, the Peabody Trust still finds time to push back the frontiers of prefabricated housebuilding. Just completed near Waterloo Station in central London is the housing trust’s third venture into developing flats using prefabricated volumetric modules.

Just as in Murray Grove and Raines Dairy in north London, fully finished modules were craned into position in a few hours as efficiently as if they were a stack of freight containers. Even so, Barons Place comes with several twists to the tried-and-tested formula. For a start, the flats are relatively tiny, as they are intended to be rented out for short periods (no longer than a few years at a time) to key workers. Second, the scheme of six flats has been procured as a turnkey, design-and-build package deal. Perhaps most importantly, the system comes in at just £1100/m2, which adds up to two-thirds of normal building costs, bringing it within Housing Corporation cost guidelines.

The development grew out of a research project into key-worker accommodation carried out by Peabody’s commercial initiatives department. “The ODPM reckons London needs 46,000 new homes a year, and many of those should be affordable,” says David Gregory, a member of the research team. “We found that key workers, such as NHS staff, needed an intermediate form of housing. They could afford slightly higher rents than for standard affordable housing and could get by on shorter-term tenancies of four or five years before moving on.”

These findings led to an experimental studio flat of just 25 m2 – some 6 m2 less than the minimum Parker Morris standard – being commissioned from architect Johnson Naylor and erected at the Ideal Home Exhibition 2002. “It was a new way of living – with a fold-down bed, for example – but it was very familiar too,” says Gregory. “The flat was reduced in size to reflect its temporary nature, but it was still attractive. In the market research we carried out, visitors said ‘I could live here’.”

Yet it was the small area of the studio flats that was the main sticking point at Barons Place. The dwelling area contravenes planning regulations and was turned down by Southwark council, even though Gregory admits that its planners and committees “were very supportive of our application and the built project”.

Conscious of being one of Britain’s oldest and most respected housing associations, Peabody fully appreciates the sensitivity of undercutting current space standards. “The trust fully supports the application of the current minimum space standards for general housing,” Gregory emphasises. “Peabody only considers these flatlets suitable for specialist key-worker accommodation for rent.” Michael May, the trust’s director of procurement and construction, adds: “Planners are frightened of tiny boxes and are not sure about temporary accommodation. But we hope they will take a more discretionary attitude in future, when they can see the quality of what we have produced.”

Back to the present, and at Barons Place the smallest dwelling is now a 36 m2 one-bedroom flat, which Gregory points out is the same size as a flat in the City’s famous Barbican development. More in the pioneering spirit of the compact key-worker homes is a two-person “sharer flat” of just 54 m2. This has a shared living room sandwiched between the two bedrooms, with each sharer given his or her own front door and shower room. The modules come with internal dimensions of 3.6 × 5 m and 3.6 × 7 m – considerably smaller than the 3.8 × 11.8 m modules at Raines Dairy.

Squeezing down the area of the flatlets has put an onus on making the most of storage and fittings. The kitchen units stretch across the full 3.6 m width of the rear wall of the living room, and one side of the bedroom is entirely taken up by a fitted wardrobe. Underfloor heating has also dispensed with the need for bulky radiators.

Externally, the three-storey block is clad in small horizontal panels in beige, light grey and dark grey-green. This curious patchwork effect might have more in common with World War I battleship camouflage than conventional architecture, yet it gives a suitably modern image to the building. At the same time it conceals the inherent boxiness of volumetric construction by masking the vertical joints between modules. The fresh effect is further spiced up by window panels and projecting canopies in fizzy lime-green, sky-blue and magenta.

When it came to rolling out the key-worker flatlets, Gregory says: “We were keen to take the project forward with metal-frame technology.” But rather than approach an established steel-module manufacturer such as Yorkon, Peabody teamed up with a complete outsider. This was the fledgling Spaceover Group, which had transmuted from TMP Parkover, a system-builder of prefabricated multistorey car parks.

Spaceover does not actually manufacture the modules but provides an all-in turnkey service of fully-fitted buildings. From Peabody’s outline plans drawn up by Johnson Naylor and a budget laid down by Calford Seaden, Spaceover devised a volumetric system with detailed design from Proctor and Matthews, famous for the ODPM’s first experimental Millennium Village in Greenwich, and services design by engineering firm Max Fordham. Then, like a management contractor, it subcontracted out the fabrication of all the elements of the system.

“We source all the components separately using an approved supply-chain management system and drop them into the frame,” explains Fox. “This gives us more flexibility. On top of that, you don’t really need a sophisticated manufacturer. We try to keep the whole process simple by using tested techniques. This means that it can be put together by an unskilled and semi-skilled workforce.”

For Barons Place, prefabrication started with lightweight, galvanised-steel frames welded together to an accuracy of +/- 2 mm by Ayrshire Metals. These were then transported to off-site manufacturer Rollalong’s assembly plant for fitting out.

As for site works, including mains services supply, foundations and erection, this was contracted out to Clancy Docwra.

“One of the key drivers of the scheme was to make everything maintainable,” continues Fox. “There are no specials at all: you could go to B&Q to replace things if you needed to. And all items are easily accessible.”

Accessibility was one lesson learned from Peabody’s last modular scheme at Raines Dairy. At Barons Place, all services are contained within a riser accessible from the communal access deck at the rear. This meant that the service runs of each module could be connected up on site without tradesmen clambering through fully fitted kitchens and bathrooms. The same goes for periodic maintenance and repairs.

Barely less accessible are the steel bolts connecting the modules together. The advantage here is that modules on a temporary site could be quickly demounted and re-erected on another site.

At Barons Place, prefabrication brought the desired effect of cutting construction time by 40%. The scheme won planning permission last December; construction started in February; the 15 modules were erected over two days in April; and the finished block was handed over in mid-September, ready for occupation.

Looking ahead, Spaceover has ambitious plans for rolling out the system, both for Peabody and two private developers. “We have 2000 units for various sites within the M25 under contract up to 2007, and 750 of these are currently in for planning,” says Fox.

“We have a superior product that outperforms conventional construction in sound insulation, heating and heat insulation. And we are the only company that has taken the complete volumetric accommodation system through full accreditation from the Building Research Establishment and Zurich Insurance. They are the first volumetric units to be fully mortgageable and insurable, and that means that each site can contain a mix of units for rent, shared equity and sale.”

As for Peabody, it plans to team up with employers, include the NHS, to provide their key workers with suitable housing. “It isn’t possible to pay for land to provide affordable key-worker housing,” says Gregory. “So we are looking at sites gifted by employers, either as temporary sites or in the airspace over shops, hotels and even existing buildings.”

At the same time, Peabody hopes to convince planners of the social benefits of its compact studio flats. Yet already key workers in central London are settling into snug, stylish microflats at rents they can afford.

Project team

developer Peabody Trust
developer’s architect Johnson Naylor
cost consultant Calford Seaden
contractor’s architect Proctor and Matthews
services engineer Max Fordham
turnkey contractor Spaceover Group