With this pioneering 102-flat development in Manchester, Urban Splash and ShedKM have finally succeeded in making prefabricated housing the height of fashion. We found out how it was done.

Moho rising
Moho rising

Moho. The name suggests the latest in chic, urban consumption – a hyper-arrogant 4 × 4 perhaps, or a trendy Islington fashion outlet. It may come as something of a surprise, therefore, to find that it represents something as basic and industrial as a prefabricated housing block, and is simply a snappy abbreviation of “modular homes”.

Yet its billing as a designer must-have is still apt, as this is the work of Urban Splash and ShedKM, among the most cutting-edge developers and architects in the UK. In its basic form, Moho is a new-build seven-storey development of 102 small, fully furnished flats above shops and car parking at Urban Splash’s burgeoning housing enclave at Castlefield, just west of Manchester city centre. More than that, it packs several architectural and technical innovations that are revolutionary for Britain’s always-play-it-safe housebuilding industry.

For a start, it is the UK’s first private-sector multistorey housing development to be based on prefabricated volumetric modules. And even though they have ventured into unchartered waters, the architect and developer have hardly proceeded on tiptoes. Just the opposite: they have condensed each dwelling in a single volumetric module for the first time; swivelled the oblong modules around by 90° so that, instead of being stacked together like fish fingers, they are strung out end-to-end like sausages; and introduced spine-access cores as independent steel structures in between six-storey stacks of self-supporting steel-framed modules.

While other private housebuilders are still only toying with off-site fabrication, Urban Splash has gone the whole hog. Chris Stalker, the developer’s senior development manager, explains why: “We were finding a greater demand for smaller, compact units. So the brief we set ourselves was to come up with a well-designed, compact flat to suit young graduates or key workers – and to do so within a tight timeframe and at high quality, without defects. So this brought us to look at volumetric construction prefabricated in factories.” The developer went on to let the tender for fabricating, fitting out and erecting the modules to Yorkon, Britain’s best-known volumetric manufacturer.

For architect ShedKM, the main challenge was to squeeze the flats into single containers while retaining a sense of space. The challenge was increased by the developer’s need to build at high density in a tightly hemmed-in site. The overall urban form had been laid down by masterplanner EDAW as a U-shaped development seven storeys high backing on to a similarly shaped scheme by another developer, Dandara. Between them, the two schemes fill the urban block and share the central courtyard.

So it comes as a great relief that, on entering one of the tiny flatlets of the completed scheme, there’s not the slightest sense of claustrophobia. Indeed, in the living room, there is a liberating sense of space and daylight. The room looks onto a communal courtyard through floor-to-ceiling glazing. Its usable floor space expands in the same direction, as beyond the sliding glass wall stretches a 1.5 m balcony. On the adjacent side, the space flows along two passageways unimpeded by doors. The outer passageway is bounded by the fully glazed outer wall, which offers the living room an extended if oblique view to the outside world. The window wall and wide balcony beyond it stretch the full 9.05 m length of the flat, adding to the sense of spaciousness. The projecting balconies also bring the benefit of shading the window walls from high summer sunshine.

The internal area is a mere 38 m2, although the balcony extends the usable space to a more conventional 48 m2. Such apparent spaciousness could only have been achieved in an oblong module by ShedKM’s daring idea of swivelling it around by 90°. The result is that one of the two longitudinal side walls no longer forms a blank party wall, as in all other multistorey volumetric schemes, but faces outwards to the open air.

The bedroom-cum-study, which lies at the other end of the two passageways, has a similar sense of space and daylight as the living room. The main difference here is that the bedroom’s section of the continuous balcony comes with a Middle Eastern-style outer screen of timber slats, giving a balance between privacy and views out.

When it comes to the kitchen, bathroom and storage, more of ShedKM’s radical reorderings come into play – in this case inspired by yacht design. The kitchen and bathroom together form a central island bounded by the living room, bedroom and two passageways. They are both narrow galley arrangements set back-to-back and open to one or other of the passageways. Both are remarkably compact and accessible, with the curious exception of the bath, which can only be clambered into from one end.

As for the storage, this has been secreted behind sliding doors in odd corners off the bedroom and rear passageway. Yacht-inspired ingenuity in saving space even extends to the furniture, which is supplied by trendy furniture shop Mooch. The bedroom, for instance, comes with a fitted window desk and a double bed with sliding drawers tucked below.

Moho also contains two slightly larger flat types, with one or two extra rooms. These are also contained within a single module, albeit with a clip-on pod at the side. The pod contains a dining room that opens on to the kitchen galley and extends to the outer edge of the balcony. As its outer wall is solid, the dining pod draws daylight from the balcony on either side through floor-to-ceiling glazing. The largest flat type incorporates a second bedroom, which lies beyond the living room and entails a simple linear extension of the module to 12.15 m.

The 102 flats are arranged in three seven-storey wings. In the middle wing, all the flats face south and are reached by wide access decks at the back. In both side wings, double banks of flats face east and west and are reached by a wide, though gloomy, passageway passing between them. The central courtyard serves as a communal garden for residents and sits on the roof of a car parking podium one floor above street level. Passers-by are offered an alluring glimpse into the courtyard through a wide screen of glazed doors and up and along what looks like a green escalator of living sedum plants. The ground floor on all three sides will be occupied by shops and cafes opening on to the pavement.

There has been no attempt to disguise Moho’s modular construction, as its facades to street and courtyard are made up of rectilinear grids of panels. Yet this regular patterning has been enriched into what ShedKM’s director James Weston calls “a modular Cubist look”. This has been achieved partly by splitting the elevations into two vertical layers for external walls and outer balcony screens, and partly by using three different though matching types of balcony panels. Each flat module has been split into three bays, with the living room balcony fronted by a low glazed panel, the bedroom balcony fronted by horizontal timber slats and the projecting dining pod by horizontal timber boarding. By intermixing the flat types, a lively mix of panels has been created across the facades.

All in all, Moho has a communal appeal, deceptively spacious interiors and full stylish furnishings that should go down well with young people setting up home. Balanced against this are the asking prices, currently starting at £131,000, which might be a little above the starter homes league. Perhaps Moho’s only design sticking point is the end-on bath. Yet this could easily be replaced with a shower without disrupting the central island, so it does not undermine the success of the radical reconfiguration of modular homes, which in Weston’s words, “positively embrace and celebrate the aesthetic and technology of prefabricated design”. In other words, modular housing has at last found a place within the aspirational world of the young urban professional.

Project team

housebuilder and construction manager Urban Splash
architect ShedKM
structural engineer Joule
services engineer Fulcrum
QS Simon Fenton Partnership
landscape architect Landscape Projects
module fabricator Yorkon
concrete contractor Dew 
steel access structure Thircon
balcony steel structure MSR
mechanical services RAD Mechanical
electrical services Carey, MG Electrics
external render Astley

Moho key points

  • First volumetric modular apartments for sale built by private developer

  • First scheme with each flat contained within a single module

  • Modules realigned end to end to give maximum window space

  • Apartments extended with clip-on balconies, dining pods and entrance pods

  • Access and lateral bracing by independent steel structure

Splashing out

There is little sign that prospective purchasers are turned off by the overt prefabrication of Moho, even though senior development manager Chris Stalker admits they are marginally dearer than comparable new flats. Currently, as the second phase is released on to the market, the company says that about half the flats have been sold. Price ranges from £131,000 for a 38 m2 one-bedroom flat to £176,000 for a 54 m2 two-bedroom flat with bathroom pod. All are furnished, but car parking spaces cost an extra £20,000. For those who cannot stretch to a full mortgage, 20 flats are available under shared-ownership deals with Manchester Methodist Housing Group.

To satisfy mortgage lenders, the flatlets are covered by a 10-year building warranty from Zurich Insurance. The warranty is backed by the British Board of Agrément which has certified that Yorkon’s system will have a 60 year design life. Even so, Stalker admits that “some lenders are reluctant to take on modular construction, and being six storeys high has made it even more difficult. We’ve tackled this by speaking directly to lenders, but it demands an awful lot of legwork”.

Construction costs for the 102 apartments and ground-floor shops were £9m, or £1330/m2. The two-storey, 270-space car park in the basement, which is shared with Urban Splash’s new housing block next door, cost another £4m.

Seven steps from factory to flats - Step 1

Off-site prefabrication of modules
Moho’s 102 flats are all prefabricated as single volumetric modules by Yorkon at its plant in York. They are based on Yorkon’s well-tested formula of a robust steel structure with enclosing floors and walls in combinations of steel sheets, particle board and plasterboard, and they have been modified to ShedKM’s architectural design and performance specification. The main departure from standard apartment modules is that their 9.05 m side walls are fully glazed external walls. Only by rotating the modules around so that the long side walls face outwards could the window area be increased to channel more precious daylight into the interiors. The practical reason for this is that modules can be elongated up to 80 m but cannot be widened beyond 4.1m without requiring a prohibitively expensive police escort for the lorries that bring them to site.

Seven steps from factory to flats - Step 2

Off-site fit-out of modules
The modules are fully fitted out in Yorkon’s factory with kitchen, bathroom and storage fittings from Urban Splash’s nominated suppliers, along with slimline wall-mounted electric panel heaters. All the fabrication and fitting takes 18 working days for each unit. Standardised industrial production inside the factory ensures precise, defect-free construction and finishes. Or as Keith Blanchard, Yorkon’s managing director, puts it: “All the white vans turn up at the established plant at York, not at some remote muddy building site.”

Seven steps from factory to flats - Step 3

Construction of steel and concrete access decks
In another departure from standard volumetric construction practice, the access decks are constructed as free-standing steel-framed structures with precast concrete floor slabs before the modules are erected. As well as providing wider than normal access decks, the robust steel structures give side bracing to the apartment modules, which are stacked end-to-end. The six-storey steel structure is erected on top of a concrete transfer slab that caps two levels of car parking.

Seven steps from factory to flats - Step 4

Erection of apartment modules
All 102 apartment modules are transported 80 miles to site by lorry and then craned into position and fixed by Yorkon at the rate of six a day. They were erected to six storeys, the maximum height for self-supporting steel-framed modules, and braced against the steel access structures. Narrow horizontal gaps are left between storeys.

Seven steps from factory to flats - Step 5

Installation of extension pods
Open-ended pods are dropped into place for the dining rooms on the external side and for entrance lobbies on the access-deck side. The dining pods are fixed to the steel columns of the modules with self-tapping screws. Drains, water supply, electrics and ventilation ducts running above and below each module from kitchen and bathroom are connected to a service riser in the entrance pod.

Seven steps from factory to flats - Step 6

Erection of balcony structures
Steel frames are erected up the outside of the modules to support balconies and dining pods. They are tied back to the primary steel access structures by steel beams running through the horizontal gaps left between the modules.

Seven steps from factory to flats - Step 7

Finishing off
Decking and external panels are fixed to the balcony structures. The solid external faces of the modules are finished in a white render that masks the inevitable variations in gaps between modules. Decking and landscaping are installed in the central courtyard. Total construction takes 17 months.

Projectsupdate: health and safety

Hire education
When the Health and Safety Executive introduced its revised working at height regulations in April, tool and plant hire companies could have been forgiven for thinking they were no more than interested bystanders. The regulations emphasised that the onus was on site employers to reduce the risk of falls by making sure their operatives wore safety equipment and adopted approved working practices. But when contractors began looking for help in meeting the new requirements, it occurred to them that hire companies were well placed to advise on the safest use of equipment and the best methods of working.

The number of requests addressed to one company, Speedy Hire, was so great that the firm decided to move beyond ad hoc advice and begin its own support campaign, Safety From The Ground Up. “Many of our clients were well aware of the regulations, but were faced with the problem of implementing them at site level,” says Speedy marketing director Phil Prince. “They were under pressures of time and cost, and were coming to us for advice on issues such as alternatives to using ladders and steps.”

Safety From the Ground Up highlights those alternatives, and also provides a step-by-step reminder of the planning and risk assessments that need to be undertaken before working at height. As part of the scheme, Speedy Hire has trained 700 employees on the regulations, and has created an information pack for clients. This was approved by the HSE, and profiles safety devices such as access towers, lanyards and harnesses. It also distills the regulations into a checklist of straightforward procedures that can be adopted before the start of each project to increase the likelihood of compliance with the regulations.

The one-stop advice package has been particularly welcomed by the company’s smaller clients. “The larger customers have greater resources than the smaller ones, including full-time safety professionals,” says Prince. “The smaller companies most need this type of guidance and support.” As a result of this, Speedy is now considering widening the scheme to focus on other regulations. As the number of musculoskeletal injuries incurred by workers in small companies are two-and-a-half times greater than in large companies, the advice would probably be appreciated.

The dangers of mixing scaffolding
The Original Scaffolding Manufacturers Group has warned against mixing genuine scaffolding products with “pirate copies”.

The group has warned that mixing products not only affects the performance of the scaffold, but also affects liability insurance should an accident occur.

Peter Bond of OSEM member company SGB says the insurance problems could represent “a further unwelcome twist” for companies caught mixing products. He said: “Where equipment of mixed origins is found to be involved in an accident, any quality manufacturer, such as those that have formed OSEM, would not be able to take responsibility.”

The group has emphasised the importance of tracing the origins of scaffolding components to check that they have been inspected by third-party inspection bodies and have been performance-tested.

Looking ahead …
6 July - Introduction of Control of Vibration at Work regulations. This requires employers to assess the risk to employees of long-term exposure to whole body and hand–arm vibration. Employers must either eliminate or, if this is not possible, mitigate employees’ exposure to vibration and carry out health checks.

29 July - Closure of consultation period on revision to CDM Regulations. The HSE is proposing to place the onus of responsibility on the client to appoint people competent in health and safety. The planning supervisor will be replaced by a co-ordinator who will provide guidance on the health and safety implications of the design, use and maintenance of the project. The CDM Regulations will come into force in October 2006.