1. Built environment
April 28, 2016

We can have cheap and good quality homes – we just need Part-Fab

By Edward Douglas

Solutions to the housing crisis often boil down to one of two options – a mass building programmes that deliver affordable homes at scale; or a neighbourhood planning revolution that allows communities to drive development in their area.

It’s not really surprising that we end up at an impasse – the former will deliver poor quality, identikit homes and unsustainable communities; the latter will slow development and deliver more expensive homes.

But how can we get new homes that are cheap, good quality and personalised? The answer is Part-Fab.

The recent push by politicians and policy-makers towards self- and custom build as a means of improving housing design, ownership and delivery is welcome, but it’s not enough. Financing for self-build is still difficult to access for most; and many homebuyers simply don’t want to take on the perceived additional risks and go through the (lengthy) process of designing and building their own homes from scratch.

Yet there is a strong case for an approach to housing design that allows people to shape their own homes and that, crucially, can be delivered at scale. The benefits of self-build can largely be realised through what can best be described as Part-Fab – part-finished, modular builds that allow homeowners to shape their own homes and, in doing so, generate a greater sense of place than many current housing developments achieve.

A part-fab home, standing part-fabbed. Image: Elemental.

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The idea of part-fabrication comes from an unlikely source: post-disaster zones. The concept provides a means of providing cheap, easy to construct housing to replace those lost in earthquakes and flooding. Architects design a small living unit based on residents’ current needs, and leave each family to expand their quarters over time. You can add an extra bedroom or a new living room, or determine your own external cladding. Allowing residents to organically shape design is an effective way of quickly restoring a sense of place and belonging that natural disasters so devastatingly take away.

In a different way, Britain faces these challenges in meeting our severe housing shortage. We need more homes, built quicker; but we also need a renewed focus on the quality of design and on the importance of community and place-making.
A new drive on Part-Fab developments would benefit everyone – buyers get cheaper homes that better meet their needs, developers get shorter completion times and save money on the build, and communities get the visual benefits of an organic, people-centred approach to design and housing. No longer would new suburban development be characterised by identikit estates of box homes.

The Part-Fab approach should generate significant savings in build costs. But despite the prospect of lower house prices, it may also need to be accompanied by a formal mechanism of support – it’s easy to imagine hard-pushed buyers foregoing completion of properties to save money.

It should also be locally-led. As it would be a new type of property design, local authorities could run an open tender to invite architects to pitch innovative ideas for developments that meet the specific needs of localities: this happened with the scheme in Constitución, Chile. The government’s drive to unlock public sector land is an opportunity for a forward-looking city to introduce a pilot Part-Fab scheme in this way.

Part-Fab development means we don’t have to see affordability, quality and place-making as a trade-off – we just need new thinking and ambition from those in local and national government. 

Edward Douglas is a senior policy and projects officer at think tank Respublica.

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