Space in cities is at a premium and demand for housing is continuing to rise against a back drop of economic uncertainty in many developed nations and rapid urbanisation in emerging economies. New technologies are helping to create radically new designs, which maximise space and internal flexibility. They may provide new lower cost housing solutions, maximise space use within buildings as well as homes, and open up the housing market to new competition.
Prefabrication construction is not new in some markets, but its uptake may require regulations to be adapted, appliance manufacturers to form new alliances, and traditional house builders to innovate in the face of new competition. While these new solutions are at present targeted primarily at developed markets, they could well be adapted for emerging markets too.
What is changing?
The Mayor of New York recently ran a competition for designs for ‘micro apartments’ on a Manhattan site. The winning solution includes units each measuring between 250 and 370 square feet, with 18% of the total building dedicated to various forms of shared space – lounges, party rooms, a rooftop garden and a fitness centre – to improve overall liveability. Another critical factor is the pre-fabricated construction process, which reduces costs and speeds up delivery, and means that nearly half the units will be designated a social / low cost rentals.
Elsewhere new entrants are also potentially making waves, again drawing on prefabrication. YO!, a company based in the UK famous for its chain of sushi bars, has set up YO! Home. Again, the target is to maximise space usage. In this instance, the entrepreneur has adapted stage technology, normally used to shift heavy scenery easily, to move walls, raise or lower hidden beds, convert beds into multi-purpose surfaces. Ikea too has launched a ‘flat pack home’ business. Snoozebox meanwhile is using new approaches to create ‘pop up hotels’ for major events such as Grand Prix’s or festivals. While it is too early to tell if these new ventures will succeed, they indicate a challenge to conventional providers.
One-off designs also indicate the potential for new approaches to space configuration. In Poland, a 60 inch (just over 152 centimetres) wide apartment was slotted into the 40 foot deep (12.2 metres) space between two buildings. With one room per floor and ladders between, it uses what would otherwise be ‘dead space’. A historical shopping mall in Providence in the USA had suffered, along with many others, from the recession with growing numbers of empty spaces, but also a growing demand for city housing as people left the suburbs. The result was a conversion to apartments, many in what is termed the micro size of 225-450 square feet, and falling into low rent categories. In Finland, an architecture student developed a pre-fabricated ‘origami house’ which was could be adapted for wide temperature differences to conserve energy in winter and reduce temperature in summer.
Why is this important?
The need for effective housing solutions is critical as urban populations continue to grow. In emerging nations the pressures are particularly from the expansion of slums and overcrowding; in the West the challenges are different, but still significant – changing demographics as people move in from suburbs to city centres; affordable housing for key professions; growing numbers of single person households. Prefabricated, micro units may provide the start of solutions to both sets of problems.
The use of pre-fabrication is encouraging innovation, reducing costs and speeding up construction times. It is also enabling new solutions to space maximisation and opening the door to new entrants and new technologies. What has been a very traditional sector could soon be facing significant competition from brands that are known and bring a new dynamic to a potentially staid market – for example we could see the emergence of branded rental sectors with any number of companies extending their lifestyle credentials into homes, as YO! Home and Ikea are doing.
None of the examples cited are yet using 3Dprinting, but pre-fab construction will enable its uptake to a far greater degree and numerous projects are already in the pipeline. A UK project aims to 3D print a prototype house that can be ‘snapped together’ and built in 3 weeks and a Dutch engineer is creating radically different structural styles using 20×30 foot 3D printed sections. Further afield NASA is exploring 3D printed moon structures and emergency relief workers are exploring the possibility of rapid response housing.
As so often happens with significant innovations, there is a combination of drivers, the net result of which may be new lower cost housing solutions, maximised space use within buildings as well as homes, and an opening of the housing market to new competition.