Last edited 09 Feb 2021

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Thinking inside the box - housing crisis

Britain’s housing crisis is something built environment professionals have been familiar with for some time but its scale continues to stagger. At its sharpest end, people are finding themselves not simply unable to get on to the property ladder but without a home at all. In Britain one in two hundred people are homeless. This figure includes those who are on the streets (rough sleepers) and in hotels/B&Bs. This constitutes another, indeed more painful, crisis in and of itself.

Big problems need bold solutions — enter the largest ‘temporary structure’ emergency accommodation scheme in the UK.

Ealing Council has 2,242 households in temporary accommodation and were seeing a decline in options to house residents locally. The council worked with property company QED Sustainable Urban Developments to develop an underused brownfield site in Acton into temporary accommodation. But this is no ordinary high rise, this is a development built entirely from repurposed shipping containers that has gone from concept to completion in the space of just ten months, housing up to 288 residents just before Christmas 2017.

Architecture and engineering practice Cityzen were appointed to provide the technical architectural design and M&E for the containers, achieving building regulations sign-off, produce a coordinated construction package for the container conversion companies, and to design the site services.

I spoke to Roman Schnecker MCIAT from Cityzen, a CIAT Registered Practice, about the Meath Court development. Different units meet different needs. Some have been designed for individuals and some for families of up to six people. There is also communal space, a management office and laundry room on site too.

Without the units, the tenants would likely be housed in B&Bs, but this is a less stable solution Roman tells me that people are regularly moved on and so "there’s no sense of permanence whatsoever".

This type of accommodation has significant advantages for the council too. The accommodation is provided on a joint venture basis and has features that other temporary options do not. As Roman adds "at Meath Court, you have your own front door, private shower room and kitchenette, you can make it yours having privacy and independence, while the Council sources a longer-term option."

With the site earmarked for redevelopment in 2024, deconstruction of the site is required to be in 23 days to meet the Council requirements. This informed the structural site works, designed by engineer Design ID. And being electrically heated also assists with a rapid deconstruction, having just a single connection point to each residential unit.

The properties are energy efficient, each unit has an EPC B rating. Being electrically heated, due to the fuel mix of grid electricity, does result in higher CO2 compared to the equivalent efficient gas fuelled building and so PV would be required to reduce the CO2 of the site.

Being a short duration site PV was not feasible for the council, so there was agreement to install the required amount of PV on a permanent council site elsewhere in the borough.

There are three types of unit at Meath Court: one-bed studios, one-bed flats, and two-bed flats. Each had a production template model designed using Revit. The way Cityzen approached this involved ‘essentially developing a product that could be rolled out repeatedly.’ Designing the site itself essentially involved stacking the units in Revit. Detailing of the external elevations to ensure services coordination, the production of each container’s data sheet and the location on site was modelled in Revit while construction detailing was done in AutoCAD.

Data was shared via a common data environment (Dropbox) with the site construction team, QED the developer, and the two container manufacturers to ensure all parties were working on the current construction data.

One challenge Cityzen faced was making sure that the two fabricators followed the same detailed designs. The units get built very quickly so as well as having a keen eye on detail the practice also had to think on its feet as two different manufacturers experienced different challenges and perspectives. Also, containers are not as modular as you might think, different batches of containers would come with different measurements so speedy adjustments needed to be made to individual template models. It is only the metal corners that are required to meet the ISO standard measurements.

For each unit, a datasheet was produced and sent to fabricators in Liverpool and Cornwall. These new methods of approaching construction as a factory process, were able to produce the batches of units ‘in a matter of weeks.’

The project timescale was always tight and ideally a prototype would have been produced and tested, but an initial marketing show unit highlighted improvement opportunities and the team and client were able to agree on changes that would be needed.

In tackling homelessness, Roman believes these kinds of temporary solutions should be more widely considered. He tells me they’re not "the overall end solution" but "there’s a lot of under-used land either being banked or earmarked for future development. If you could provide a number of units for a short period of time, be that one to however many years, whilst you’re constructing the permanent accommodation and the land owner has a benefit then definitely."

How about turning shipping containers into permanent residences? "I have no issue… as long as it’s done right" he says. Roman tells me that some of the units they have produced are bigger than his own flat but these particular units wouldn’t be suitable for a family’s "forever home." These are a short-term solution to an urgent housing need. But the technical detailing required to make it work could definitely be applied to other container formats. The Meath Court development has a seven-year lifespan after which time the units will be dismantled and reinstalled at another site.

The Cityzen team have enjoyed working on this project and are keen to work on similar modular projects further utilising their expertise. But more research needs to be done. As a prototype was not produced this is one thing Roman would like to change. "We learned from an earlier iteration the importance of acoustic testing in place, and there are various other tests that could be conducted on a prototype to ensure it is the most robust design possible for the desired end use."

In the long term, Roman tells me that the scheme is scalable. He says, "once you’ve got the formula to work there’s no reason why you couldn’t … just increase the size of that." With the core units designed he believes future projects would ‘substantially reduce the timescale to site.’

Roman’s advice to Architectural Technologists is simple: "Get outside of your comfort zone… I was coming from a background where I was doing very traditional stuff." He learned a lot on the project, "it was painful at times but also really exciting" he says.

To tackle the housing and homelessness crises, Britain needs boldness and quite possibly innovation. There may be some pain. There may be some excitement. One thing is certain – there needs to be action. As I leave my interview with Roman at Cityzen, I am more certain that solutions are out there, and hopeful others will reach for them.

This article was originally published by CIAT in AT Journal ed. 125, Spring 2018. It was written by James Evans, Communications Assistant.


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