Government handouts for housing associations to embrace prefabrication have been largely rejected, as so far only half the cash has been taken up. But why – and what can be done to convince them that off-site construction holds the key to affordable housing?
Housing associations' reputation for being at the cutting edge of housebuilding has taken a knock this week. It has emerged that between them, they have claimed only half a government fund for subsidising off-site construction of affordable homes.

The Housing Corporation's Kickstart programme offered a fund of £80m to housebuilders that used prefabricated methods. But so far, only £45m has been allocated since the programme started in 2001 and the Housing Corporation has decided to run the scheme for a further two years.

Despite the publicity surrounding award-winning prefabrication projects such as Murray Grove in London it seems that housing associations are still reluctant to give up the tools of the traditional building trade.

The reluctance to embrace prefabrication does not bode well for a £200m funding scheme announced by the government in September. The Challenge Fund has been established to provide registered social landlords with the cash to build up to 1000 prefabricated homes as well as 3000 other new homes built with traditional materials.

Manufacturers of factory-built homes are still bullish about the market despite the wariness of the housing associations. Westbury Homes, Partnership First and Stuart Milne have all invested heavily in new factories in England in the last two years, and there are lots of construction companies trying to diversify into the factory-build market.

A team including structural engineer Buro Happold is the latest to offer a prefabricated housing system. The consortium, which includes developer Urban Settings and architect Burland TM, will use steel containers – it claims a fully fitted one-bedroom home can be built for £28,000.

There are plenty of prefabrication schemes currently capturing the attention of the housing associations, if not their hearts. These include the Oakridge Central Regeneration Estate in Basingstoke, Hampshire, where 300 steel-frame homes are being built by Forge Llewellyn for Oakfern Housing Association. Yorkon Homes and Peabody Trust are also hoping to build on the success of the award-winning Murray Grove with their modular scheme at Raines Dairy in Stoke Newington.

How much housing associations will warm to these methods of housebuilding depends on how easily they understand prefabrication and how quickly they can integrate the factory-built elements into existing on-site processes. It will be up to the manufacturers of new systems to make sure that their systems can be erected on site as simply as they can be built off site.

Clive Clowes, head of housing procurement practice and development at the Housing Corporation, also says that the government's policy of awarding the grants on a yearly basis means that housing associations and manufacturers find it difficult to establish the continuity to make production line methods work.

One other sticking point could be the lack of trained erectors. With this in mind, the CITB set up a training centre for erectors in the summer with the help of a £626,000, three-year grant from the DTI. The centre is hoping to train 1000 people over three years – and its success will help determine whether prefabrication can make a meaningful contribution to the UK's housing shortfall.