Procure Plus is a North West consortium with 40 social landlord members. They have hired consultants to look at the feasibility of developing an off-site assembly plant, which it is believed could produce 1000 properties a year for the members and could be up and running by 2016. It would be the first of its’ kind in the social sector and would cost between £2m and £3m to develop.
I am a great fan of pre-fabricated housing, because I saw this at first hand when visiting Japan. Virtually every house there is “new” and my own little house, built in 1936, was considered quite an ancient monument!
Japanese houses are expected to last 25 years, and then start again! The home-buyer goes to a house “super-store” – a site with examples of every kind of property they build. The purchaser then chooses the rooms that are needed, the wood finishes, wall decoration, built-in furniture. Of course, with a 25 year life-span, that means that all the latest innovations are installed at the time of assembly.
Why am I such a fan? Well, no decorating for a start! Walls have a vinyl wall covering. Toilets have warm seats, a built in bidet and blow-dry facility and automatic flush – I would kill for one of those! No radiators cluttering up walls – heating is via fan heaters at ceiling height. Built-in cupboards in the lounge but little other furniture – a table and chairs and a small couch; this was used by the dog, I was told (after I had sat on it!), because others either used the dining chairs or knelt on the floor. Light switches have a small light when they are off, so no scrabbling around for a light-switch in the dark. Houses have a space on the ground floor which is for storage; in Britain, we would make it into another room, but storage is important in Japan so it is built into the properties. Bathroom and a toilet are also on the ground floor, with most of the living accommodation on the upper floors, though in the house I stayed in, there was a room on the ground floor for the grandmother of the family.
We would probably feel the living accommodation was small, with a lounge area with a table and chairs and a small, but very well-planned, kitchen. Another toilet and a washing alcove with a sink were just off the kitchen. A novelty is the “Special room”, which houses a Shinto shrine and is used only for special occasions. Upstairs were 3 bedrooms with built in wardrobes. No bathroom on the top floor! 2 of the bedrooms were quite small, though space maximised by using sliding doors. Futons Japanese sleep on are not like the European version we see in Ikea – they are thin mattresses which are folded up during the day with no supporting framework.
The one European bed in the house was slept on by the mother – a single bed. Having slept on both, I preferred the futon.
Most properties had no garage space though bicycles were left at the front. There was a small garden at the back, but very little used, other than for the dog. Japanese people prefer to go to the large ornamental parks that seem to abound, picnicking and barbecuing under the cherry blossom.
Properties built in this manner are sensibly planned and give the purchaser exactly what they want; they keep up with innovation and economies of scale are possible. I am glad that social landlords are considering the advantages of a “housing factory” – it would be nice if an entrepreneur decided to build one for private landlords to access.