It’s okay to use the P word for modular housing

Modular homes are not just temporary, they can be used in the same way as other homes

The ruse that so-called modular housing is temporary or “emergency” accommodation was well and truly exposed by a Dublin City Council report to elected members on Thursday.

The report jointly drafted by the council's head of housing Dick Brady and head of planning Jim Keogan says "modular units are capable of long-term use".

It goes on to say: “It is intended that multiple emergency placements of families will occur until such time housing supply is such that these temporary emergency measures are no longer necessary and units can be put to other uses, including standard social housing and or other innovative uses such as public housing, sale or student accommodation.”

And a good thing too given the council said these homes would cost in excess of €100,000 each to provide, a similar cost to that of traditional or “on-site” constructed homes.

There is no reason a “modular” home cannot be used in the same way as any other home. All the term refers to is a structure that is manufactured off-site and then installed or assembled on-site. Other terms for this method of housing provision could be “factory-built”, or more neatly “prefabricated”.

The outcry when Brady first said the council was considering the use of prefabricated housing means the P word can never be mentioned, resulting in unnecessary convolutions and contrivances, including the use of the term modular, so people do not “get the wrong idea”.

It is easy to see why people who grew up in a school system reliant on prefabs might get the wrong idea. However, there are advantages in the use of prefab housing.

"They are designed in the factory complete with all fittings, light switches, wiring, electrical conduits... they arrive on the back of lorries and are assembled and in a matter of weeks you have a livable house," said Charles Mitchell, DIT quantity surveying lecturer.

“Energy ratings are generally far in excess of a traditional build; there is less need for extremely skilled trades people on site, and we are currently experiencing a shortage of those skills; and the factory controls the design and the quality can guarantee a certain standard of finish.”

Predominant mode

Modular housing is becoming the predominant mode of housing construction in Germany and Scandinavian countries for these and one other important reason. “Temperatures range below freezing over the course of a day. Below zero you do not place concrete.”

Orla Hegarty, course director at the school of architecture in UCD, says as long as the housing, and also the setting it goes into, is well designed, there should be no issue with modular homes.

“The people who will be living here have already had a bad experience with emergency accommodation, so it’s crucial we get this right and the homes and the community functioning well.”

Traditional prefabs cannot meet this need in terms of design and cost, she said.

“Low density ‘temporary’ single-storey units would have very high ‘permanent’ site service costs – roads, footpaths, drainage, water, electricity, boundary walls etc.”

Anne Cleary of the Construction Industry Federation said while modular housing was "laudable to address the crisis" it was not the right solution for housing provision in terms of cost. "The costs quoted by the council are not far off that of providing permanent homes."

She said if the planning process could be accelerated for this modular housing it could also be improved to allow faster provision of tradition housing.

“The planning process is adding substantial delays and uncertainties to the process of providing new homes.”