New opportunities in modular housing and VR
This year’s Smart Practice conference explores new business opportunities with a session dedicated to innovations in technology and delivery, from emerging growth markets to the strategies that can land new clients.
Modular housing is one area that presses all the right buttons. After years of promotion as the way forward for the industry, real volumes are starting to be built and architects are learning to work with offsite manufacturers to detail more sophisticated solutions to meet the needs of fast-track housing construction.
HTA Design are exploring the new frontier for offsite, the high-rise modular apartment building, with twenty-plus storey projects already under construction and a 44-storey project soon to be submitted for planning.
Managing Partner Simon Bayliss, who will be speaking on the recent evolution of the modular housing market at Smart Practice, says the key growth driver is modular housing’s emergence as an investment asset class, first with student accommodation but lately in the rapidly emerging build-to-rent sector.
The developer and system manufacturer – increasingly one and the same in modular construction – are delivering purpose-built homes that will be handed over on completion to an operator or housing provider.
‘Developers want good build quality, low defects and complete control over materials and finishes,’ says Bayliss.
‘And once approval has been given, they will go straight to construction and will want the project to reach completion as quickly as possible to start rental income flowing. The pace of purpose-built housing is quite different.’
Quality issues and timelines combine to demand a high level of technical detail from the architect before the project goes for planning.
Bayliss says that one of the rewards of this system is retention throughout the project. So far, HTA has been retained from start to finish on all of its large-scale modular housing schemes.
‘Retention challenges the argument often levelled against modular construction that the architect loses control of quality, instead our control is not lost at all.’
Bayliss suggests that in this way modular construction offers architects an antidote to design and build where they do lose control, giving them an opportunity to actually reclaim building quality.
HTA is just finishing on the 28-storey Apex House student accommodation project in Wembley, which has to be operational for the start of the new academic year, and has a 22-storey residential tower in Greenwich for Essential Living.
The 44-storey build-to-rent apartment building (for an unnamed institutional investor) is in Croydon and if approved will be a record breaker.
With the student housing market now mature, Bayliss says growth will be in build-to-rent. In many ways it is a similar proposition for investors, and HTA has seen some of its clients switching out of student housing and into build-to-rent.
Bayliss say the aim at HTA is to get to the stage where everything on a project is ‘modularisable’.
Another design frontier that is now being crossed is virtual reality. Smart Conference speaker Robert Sargent, Director at Stride Treglown, says his practice is increasingly using VR not just on design projects but as a marketing tool, employing VR headsets in pitching for new work.
‘Everyone is familiar with CGI and fly-throughs, but VR is different, it gives clients a real sense of dimension. We can give people a look at the latest design thinking and walk them through it. It’s not perfect, but it’s getting remarkably good,’ says Sargent.
Thanks to the gaming and entertainment industries, VR is suddenly affordable. You can now walk into Currys or John Lewis and pick up the Facebook backed Oculus Rift – probably the best known VR hardware that counts Stride Treglown among its users – for under £500.
Stride Treglown was an early adopter of BIM, in fact it was using parametric modelling software before what it was doing came to known as BIM, says Sargent. The practice was involved with a VR systems developer for a while, but now is happy to use an off-the-shelf VR kit.
Generally the practice will use previously modelled past projects for VR pitching to new clients, and it is this demonstrable experience that helps to win new work, although Sargent has had some requests for up front VR project proposals.
Obviously, many different levels of VR can be prepared, from relatively simple ‘cardboard white’ mock-ups to full photo realism at the other end of the time and expense spectrum.
‘The tech may still be young, but there is no reason why small practices should not get involved in VR. It’s a small investment and the software is cheap and getting cheaper,’ says Sargent. As they used to say, if you want to get ahead, get a hat.
Smart Practice Conference 2017: New Opportunities takes place at M Shed, Princes Wharf in Bristol on 3 October 2017. This year’s conference focuses on business development, encouraging a proactive approach in all levels of practice..
Thanks to Simon Bayliss, Managing Partner, HTA Design; Robert Sargent, Director, Stride Treglown.
Text by Neal Morris. This is a ‘Practice News’ post edited by the RIBA Practice team. The team would like to hear your feedback and ideas for Practice News: firstname.lastname@example.org