Faced with a target of building 89,000 new homes by 2021, Cambridgeshire has set up the SmartLIFE project to learn how innovative construction methods can make up the shortfall

Cambridgeshire faces problems typical of many regions in the south-east. As a designated growth area, it has to build an enormous number of homes in the space of a few years at a time when labour and resources are scarce. The government target for Cambridgeshire is for 89,000 new homes by 2021, and though a respectable 2500-3000 homes are being built in the county each year, this still leaves an annual shortfall of about 1500.

Cambridgeshire realised that modern methods of construction could potentially deliver enough homes to make up this shortfall. It sought help from Europe where it has teamed up with Malmö, Sweden, and Hamburg, Germany, to create the SmartLIFE project. Both cities also face difficulties in delivering housing in growth areas, and the three partners exchange views and resources, even though they have differing objectives. For Cambridgeshire, the goal of SmartLIFE is to improve the delivery of affordable homes while maintaining quality and sustainability. For Hamburg, it is about improving the craft skills needed to develop the dockland area, while for Malmö the main issue is sustainability.

SmartLIFE has attracted funding from the ODPM and the EU. It is now embarking on ambitious pilot projects including building 80 homes to assess the performance of MMC compared with traditional build methods.

For each method of construction, BRE will analyse elements such as cost, quality, timescale, energy use and waste. SmartLIFE’s Kevin Scobell is confident the results will weigh in favour of MMC. “We are convinced we can demonstrate that MMC are cheaper and faster,” he says. “At the very least, we will be able to see where any extra costs arise when building with modern methods.”

As well as the pilot homes, SmartLIFE is building 40 market homes to demonstrate that MMC can deliver attractive housing.

A further site in Cambridge will showcase SmartLIFE homes. “There are a range of houses showing that MMC are not just about basic housing,” says Scobell.

Another important element of SmartLIFE is training, and a £2.5m training centre is being built at Cambridge Regional College’s Science Park site.

The rapid progress of SmartLIFE – it only won funding approval in December 2003 – has attracted the attention of other growth areas, according to international manager Liz Blackshaw. The scope of SmartLIFE is also likely to widen. “We are looking to work with other growth areas on MMC projects and training,” she says.

Compare and contrast

The 80 SmartLIFE pilot homes will be built using four methods of construction – three modern and one traditional. The exteriors of the homes are all being designed by architect Churchill Hui. Different manufacturers will work on the design using concrete, steel, timber and traditional construction methods. The homes will be distributed across sites in Fenland and will be built by Warden Housing.

Filling the skills gap

The SmartLIFE MMC training centre will take 500 students a year and will help to alleviate the construction skills shortage in Cambridgeshire and the East of England. The CITB says there is a shortfall of 1000 workers a year in the county and a 9820 worker shortfall in the Eastern region. There is also a shortage of trainers, but this is being alleviated by Hamburg’s training centre which has a surplus as a result of Germany’s economic problems.

The £2.5m facility has been designed by Annand & Mustoe and will house two full-size MMC homes, a visitor centre, a conference centre and a headquarters for the SmartLIFE team. It will showcase systems from a range of manufacturers and show other trades how to work with homes built from MMC. As part of the venture, SmartLIFE is developing an NVQ with Cambridge Regional College.

Construction has started at the college’s Science Park site and is due to be completed by contractor Bluestone early in 2006. Plans are already being drawn up for further business and training centres.