Is mass timber the answer to the housing crisis?

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The UK is suffering from a critical housing shortage. The issue is simple in economic terms: a looming labour shortage and fluctuating material prices are serving to exacerbate the already pressing demand for more new homes.

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Much has been made of house building targets and their futility, given the dynamics of the market. The fact is, the residential building industry needs a radical step-change in terms of efficiency if it is to stand a chance of sufficiently boosting supply.

Off-site construction to the rescue

Modular or volumetric construction – manufacturing building sections off-site and then assembling them on-site – is often speedier, more flexible and able to deliver a faster return on investment than conventional building methods.

Some forward-looking developers are taking it on board. For example, Private Rented Sector (PRS) developer and operator Essential Living recently announced its intention to ‘go modular’. While it stresses that it “remains committed to working with traditional contractors”, it is using modular construction to build a 23-storey tower block, which will be one of the tallest modular buildings in the UK.

Meanwhile, Legal & General has built an off-site factory for mass timber modular units in Yorkshire that could supply thousands of apartments a year, including its own pipeline of build-to-rent projects. There are also other developers, both affordable and premium, that have shown interest in their own off-site construction factories.

The appeal of timber

It is vitally important for developers to consider material usage while focusing on modern methods of construction to increase housing supply.

Mass timber is a sturdy, precise structural material that can be used as an alternative to concrete, masonry, and steel to deliver significant cost and delivery timeline benefits. And as long as it originates from sustainable sources, it has a much lower carbon and environmental footprint, as well as numerous health and wellbeing benefits for the eventual inhabitants.

Depending on the type, mass timber is generally viable for towers up to about 18 storeys – and since the vast majority of towers proposed in London are below 20 floors high, this makes mass timber an attractive option.

A great example of mass timber construction is Regal Homes’ Dalston Lane project, designed by Waugh Thistleton. The site, which will have High Speed 1 and Crossrail pass under it, chose a type of mass timber called cross-laminated timber (CLT) because it is lightweight and allows for a further two storeys of rental accommodation to be built atop. The project is designed to deliver both efficiency and long-term revenue generation – the ideal win-win.

No silver bullet

If widely applied, modular and volumetric construction alongside the use of mass timber can supply a tangible solution to the housing crisis by delivering greater efficiency. There is no panacea – that much is clear – but these methods are worth exploring on the majority of projects and in particular on build-to-rent schemes. Rents could be achieved more quickly due to the reduced construction programme, while financing costs would also be lowered, boosting development yields.

The fact is, we only have a limited pool of resources both in terms of human capital and finance, so we need to do more with less. We’re starting to see the UK’s housing approach evolve, particularly with Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Budget Statement which outlines a £44bn investment programme to aid the construction of 300,000 homes by mid-2020. Whether this will be enough to grow the off-site construction supply chain at the pace needed to hit this target is an altogether different question. Only time will tell.

Ashley Perry is a senior project manager in JLL’s project management team and member of the Urban Land Institute’s Young Leaders Committee in the UK and Europe. The original article was published in Construction News.

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