Why the £60,000 house competition is an opportunity not to be missed

Design for Manufacture is the contest launched earlier this month by the ODPM to challenge housebuilders to design quality homes with a construction cost of about £60,000. Public sector land is being provided through English Partnerships for 1000 homes, with the first sites in Milton Keynes, Aylesbury, Northampton and Leeds.

As architects, we have been pushing hard for greater use of modern construction methods to improve the quality and affordability of new housing for the past 10 years. So, although we welcome and support this move, we would have relished this opportunity several years ago. There is no doubt that we need to change the way we build and deliver new housing. The focus of the industry now has to be on greater productivity and building more efficiently.

If you look at statistics from the DTI, as a country we work the longest hours in Europe, have the shortest holidays and the highest divorce rate. We are still arguably the sweatshop of Europe, with all the social connotations and family-related problems that are associated with that. And yet, Germany, Sweden and the US are all far more productive with up to 25% more GDP per capita.

UK construction accounts for 10% of the UK’s GDP and employs more people than any other industry. If we don’t innovate and try to do things differently and more efficiently, then the housing industry in the UK will go just the same way as the British car industry. Other European and Japanese manufacturers will step in to show us how and reap the rewards for doing so. After all, Toyota, one of the biggest car manufacturers in the UK, makes housing in Japan. We need to think hard about how we can enable our housebuilding industry and what’s left of British manufacturing to thrive in the 21st century.

The £60,000 house is an ideal opportunity to move things forward. Housebuilders need to be encouraged to use some of the profits from the boom of the past 10 years and reinvest in research and development to meet the challenge. We must exploit the benefits of manufacturing technology if we are to remove the reliance on the ever-diminishing supply of skilled labour and improve the unacceptable safety record on our building sites. There really is no alternative.

We all recognise that housing is too expensive in the UK. Land values represent roughly half the cost of homes, but we can achieve better value from the building process, as other countries have proved.

We are the sweatshop of Europe, yet Sweden, Germany and the US are more productive

There are obstacles though – a degree of cynicism and resistance to modern methods of construction still exists in the housebuilding sector. There is a clear lack of manufacturing capacity, and without a commitment to volume and flow, it is phenomenally difficult for manufacturers to invest in new technology and facilities. Long-term strategic partnering arrangements are key to resolving this.

We also need to make sure that building systems are independently accredited. Otherwise there is a danger that unaccredited, ill-conceived systems will flood the market and we will repeat the failures of the 1960s. Independent third-party approvals should be used to test and accredit all new systems. Organisations such as the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the National House-Building Council, Zurich and BRE all have important roles to play in the R&D process.

If we are to achieve the necessary volumes to drive down costs and improve quality and efficiency, building systems have to be mortgageable and give the purchasers and lenders peace of mind. This is essential to the long-term success of the government’s challenge.

James Pickard is director of Cartwright Pickard Architects