Make yourself a home

With the current housing market looking hopeless for many first-time buyers, and with many more affordable, radical alternatives being offered, Steven Knight explores the options available to those seeking a home in the current millennial housing crisis.
Published —
03.11.19
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It is during these times of austerity, that the condition of the housing market, and the propensity for first time buyers to enter it, becomes somewhat of a national focus. Many are left wondering why, when they have worked hard and progressed their career, are they unable to even get their foot on the first rung of the property ladder, let alone move up it.

However, to what extent should the housing crisis be considered just that; a crisis? If a couple has saved £10,000, yet is unable to secure a first mortgage, is that a crisis? Do we take into account the visible homeless, or account for the invisible homeless too? Or are we simply to look at the manner in which unaffordable housing and increased rental prices is affecting single parent families or those stricken by poverty? The problem is as multi-faceted as it is deep rooted.

Irrespective of the myriad reasons behind them, crises such as this don’t simply take effect directly on those involved, they have implications for emergency services, social provisions, and our separately-in-crisis NHS, as affordable areas start to overpopulate and struggle to meet the demands of a community that has become full to the brim.

The fact of the matter is – for those of us lucky enough to have one – our income is worth less, now, than it has been worth in previous years. According to the Office of National Statistics’ annual report, published in March 2018, the cost of living for owner occupiers has increased by 2.3% in 12 months. This is an increase that single parent families or those on a low income, for example, can ill afford.

Prices have skyrocketed on all commodities, let alone bricks and mortar, and so the average worker finds themselves with less money, despite experiencing no alteration in their purchase habits except, maybe, a decrease as they move to ‘tighten the belt’. It is no surprise, then, that with little disposable income, individuals are having difficulty saving for that all-important first deposit.

This only takes into account those who are able to even consider attempting a first foray into the property market. As mentioned earlier, young families with minimal incomes are being priced out of rented properties because their pound is suddenly worth significantly less.

Many external factors are to blame for this, but young people are being forced to prioritise keeping a roof over their head, rather than feeding the mouths of those depending on them, driving many into impoverished conditions. Or, indeed, vice-versa, meaning that they no longer have a place of warmth and security for their family.

The housing crisis we are experiencing seems to be beating a path the length and breadth of the country (and further, on a global scale), doing so hand-in-hand with the current homeless crisis. Perhaps it would be prudent to place homelessness under the ‘housing crisis umbrella’, yet to do so would also negate its importance as a separate issue entirely.

Currently, and for some completely bewildering reason, figures for those who may be considered the most vulnerable in respect of homelessness – rough sleepers – are based solely on guesswork; estimates handed to government officials by local constituencies.

These ‘snapshots’ of homelessness, which are purported as official figures, are nothing more than a cursive head count on a single autumn day. It may seem crass to describe it as such, but it is what it is. There are no ‘hard numbers’ attributed to rough sleepers. Current estimates, taken in 2017, stand at around 4,800 individuals sleeping rough in the UK. This may seem like a relatively small figure, but the astonishing factor here is that 2017’s estimates have more than doubled since 2010, illustrating beyond any doubt that the homeless crisis is worsening.

Recent revelations in housing technology have seen the unveiling of an incredibly impressive 3D-printed home, in Austin, Texas. The idea behind the structures – given that one house can be built within a day, and costs only $6,500 dollars to do so – is to deploy them around areas in which safe housing is non-existent. New Story, one of the brains behind the operation, has already seen success in places such as Labodrie, in Haiti, where it provided safe, affordable, sustainable housing for 130 families.

Combining this expertise with ICON, a construction company with sustainability at the forefront of its ethos, the two are set to create an adaptable, sustainable solution for communities which are forced to live in dangerous conditions. Evidence shows that the model has everything going for it, given New Story’s prior performance within such a niche market.

“We feel it’s our responsibility to challenge traditional methods and work toward ending homelessness,” says Brett Hagler, CEO of New Story. “Linear methods will never reach the billion plus people who need safe homes.”

One of the most impressive elements of the 3D-printed home is not simply the ridiculously low cost, nor is it the 24 hours it takes to construct. The adaptability of such a method of building is practically limitless (within the realms of physics, of course). Houses can be printed with any structurally sound footprint, allowing rooms to be placed in different areas of the building depending on requirements.

More importantly, the house can be any shape (see earlier reference to physics) in plan, meaning that the impact on the surrounding environment can be drastically reduced, or minor changes can be made as and when required. Houses could also be built in a number of space-saving configurations, which means that communities can be rehomed with little or no detriment to that community on a social level. Good neighbours can stay good friends, so to speak.

“With 3D printing, you not only have a continuous thermal envelope, high thermal mass, and near zero-waste, but you also have speed, a much broader design palette, next-level resiliency, and the possibility of a quantum leap in affordability. This isn’t 10% better, it’s 10 times better,” says Jason Ballard, co-founder of ICON.

One has to ask, if a house can be built in 24 hours using a 3D printing method, how many more families could be saved from barely surviving in a tarpaulin dwelling? This is surely one of the most exciting recent developments in housing technology, that may spell the end of slums the world over, drastically improving the lives of millions of people in a relatively short space of time.

 

 

Wikihouses seeks to pioneer a similar movement in the sustainable/affordable housing market. The difference being that Wikihouses is a community-led initiative, something that the 3D housing solution, developed by New Story and ICON’s collaboration, is unable to offer.

Expecting a community of unskilled workers to operate a 3D printing machine, with little prior knowledge, would obviously be a totally unreasonable request. Where Wikihouses challenges this notion is by designing structures that are the housing equivalent of a flatpack wardrobe. Simple, yet effective housing that can be constructed by the community for whom it is intended.

The premise is not a complicated one. Houses are designed by professionals; architects, engineers, and manufacturers are all on board what has been dubbed ‘open source housing’. That being, the designs and such are made available under a creative commons license. Anyone is free to make use of and adapt the designs to suit their needs; adaptability again being a buzzword linked with Wikihouses’ modus operandi. The details are then made available for literally anyone to use. They only ask that any improvements to the design are shared back into the public forum. A sense of community that is two-fold, then.

If that isn’t something that will inspire a community spirit within a group, then it is difficult to know what will. The camaraderie and sense of achievement that must be instilled from contributing to an improved life for oneself and one’s community, must be phenomenal. However, we must not forget the often-avoidable reasons why such forms of rapid-build housing solutions are required.

During a TED2013 presentation, when his Wikihouses company was only just taking its first steps into the project, project leader Alistair Parvin said: “[we’re] looking at coming up with a construction model for sustainable housing rebuilding, led by communities. It’s an interesting flip from disaster relief housing to community-led development.”

Five years on and his initiative has a truly open-source microhouse project available from its website. This is a result of the hard work of many different collaborators, all of whom have been integral to the development of the ‘downloadable home’. It is even possible to download blueprints for internal and external fixtures, separate to the overall building, giving communities an increased sense of security and safety in their abode.

However, closer to home, and with so many empty properties falling to wrack and ruin in the UK, one has to ask whether there is an application for the 3D printed home here, at least in the near future? Should we not first be thinking about improving what we currently have before moving into building more homes? Or would it be cheaper to simply build new 3D homes rather than renovate existing structures?

We can see the success of sustainable homes across the UK, with an example being the Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) in London. Community spirit was certainly at the heart of developer Bioregional’s project, with the BedZED development housing living spaces, offices, and amenities, while at the same time creating zero carbon emissions. An impossible task, one might think. Not so.

On top of its environmental credentials, the community-positive criteria contained within the BedZED remit appear to be having a positive effect. According to developer Bioregional, those who live within the buildings reportedly know 20 of their neighbours by first name. There are few of us who can truthfully admit to knowing two of our neighbours’ names, so this is an achievement in itself.

Not only is the concept having a community-based effect. Given the claim that, on average, a BedZED property will sell for an average of 7.5% more than their purchase price, the project seems to be having a positive outcome on the housing market within the micro-community it accommodates. If the property is affordable, this could potentially give an individual the financial leeway they require to be able to move up the ladder, rather than stagnate in a property that they’ll never be able to afford to leave.

The environmental implications of the project, as mentioned, have also seen success. Innovations are in play, such as ‘passive heating’ – i.e. using the sunlight and south facing windows to heat a building – and said south facing windows also make use of photovoltaic technology to store the sun’s energy as electricity, which can be fed back into the grid, reducing running costs for the building.

Similar projects have also seen success outside of the capital. The Slateford Green Housing project, which is located in Edinburgh, provided 120 homes, making use of grey water and runoff water by filtering it through reedbeds. These reedbeds, in turn, provide a natural habitat for birds and aquatic life, enriching the surrounding environment with biodiversity.

Even some of the major homebuilders in the UK are getting involved in the sustainable home market. Berkeley Homes, one of the UK’s largest housebuilding firms have, in the last six months, confirmed intention to start building modular homes that can be erected on site within hours. It remains to be seen whether this is a case of ‘too little, too late’, considering the unveiling of a house that a single robotic arm is capable of building.

It is these positive steps forward that could resurrect the languishing ashes of community spirit back into localities; something that is distinctly lacking in modern society and something that every one of us can benefit from. It has to be asked, though, what does the future hold for sustainable and affordable housing?

It seems that development occurs at an alarming rate under current technologies, with man powering machine. However, with the current advancement in 3D printed technology, there is no reason why countless numbers of automatic mortar extruders can’t be set to task at once, allowing communities to be built in record time to meet what might seem an impossible demand.

Similarly, with the advancements in automation technology, we could one day see entire cities built remotely, with little need for human involvement save for those operating the process from a distant location; a progression that could end the risk to human life that construction work poses. Of course, this is all conjecture, but the advancements in affordable, sustainable-home technology serve to ignite the imagination. The future of sustainable housing is, undoubtedly, three-dimensional.