The Homeshell house: the answer to London's housing shortage

Prefabricated Homeshell houses are affordable, sustainable, are delivered within four weeks and can be assembled in 24 hours. Could they be the answer to London's housing shortage?
When is a house not just a house? When it’s also the tip of a housing revolution: that’s what the Homeshell house, being built on 11-12 August in the courtyard of the Royal Academy, aims to be.

Designed by architects Rogers Stirk Harbour+Partners (RSH+P), it will become the showpiece of Richard Rogers’s Inside Out exhibition currently running at the Academy.

Inside Out runs at the Royal Academy, W1, until October 13, (royalacademy.org.uk). The Homeshell will be on view in the courtyard free from August 13 to September 8.

Homeshell House
© 7-T-Ltd
A Homeshell house will be built at the Royal Academy courtyard on 11-12 August as the showpiece of Richard Rogers's Inside Out exhibition

Homeshell, designed over seven years by architect Andrew Partridge of RSH+P, and built in association with construction company Coxbench, is intended to provide flexible, cheap, sustainable and sharply styled housing. Delivered four weeks after ordering, it comes in flat-pack form on a lorry and is assembled to be waterproof in 24 hours. Visitors will be able to watch one being built in the RA courtyard.

Homeshell is made of cement-like panels fixed to a sustainable Scandinavian softwood timber frame, and is highly insulated. In 2007, an earlier version was built in 10 variants, at Oxley Woods on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, with Taylor Wimpey. More than 100 homes went up and are now extremely popular with their inhabitants. The big windows set flush to the walls allow plenty of light into the spacious interiors, and the structures are energy-efficient and soundproof. Newnham council has just announced that it is to build 40 Homeshells.

The Homeshell house
© Katsuhida Kida
Because Homeshells are built around a robust central core, room sizes and exteriors can be endlessly varied. The houses can also be stacked into medium and high-rise schemes
Plans are also afoot to build lots more in association with the YMCA (one of the biggest social housing providers in the UK), using a design called YCube. These will be so flexible they can be tailored to individual need. As Partridge says: “Homeshell is very exciting, it is very immediate.”

Building affordable and sustainable homes fast could help tackle London’s housing shortage — the two factories currently making Homeshells in the UK can each manufacture 780 a year with only 30 staff. But land must be freed up to put them on. Mayor Boris Johnson says he may use compulsory measures to release more land for homes.

The prefab boom


But while these prefab houses are distinctive and innovative, the basic idea is much older. The first prefabs were built in Australia in 1837. In Britain, in 1855, engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed a prefab hospital for 1,000 patients, which was shipped to the Crimea. The UK had a prefab boom after the Second World War, to replace swathes of bombed homes. Those simple houses, intended only for a few years, were hugely popular and lasted for decades; some still survive. In Germany, Huf Haus, and the less-well-known but very innovative company Weber Haus, have been building high-spec sophisticated flat-pack homes since the Sixties. They come on lorries and go up in two days — here, as well as in Germany.

The Homeshell house
© Katsuhida Kida
A version of the Homeshell built at Oxley Wood, Milton Keynes has proved popular with occupants, thanks to room flexibility
Innovative architects such as Richard Rogers have been interested in modular and prefabricated housing for decades. Rogers’s 1968 design for a “zip-up” house was influential. So was the 1968 house that he and his then wife, Su, designed for his parents, currently on sale for £3.2 million in Wimbledon. Its clean, modular form and flexible interior also has elements of this genre.

Mainstream UK interest got a fresh boost in 2005 when John Prescott, following the Barker Report of 2004 that highlighted a housing shortage, announced a competition to design a house for £60,000 (the price was based on the land being free). Homes & Property ran its own competition and exhibited the results at the Homes & Property Show 2005. Richard Rogers’s practice linked up with developer Stanhope to answer the challenge, and Homeshell was born.

Why Homeshell works
What is so special about Homeshell is that each house has a similar core, with stairs and utilities. Added on to that is a part with living rooms that can be endlessly varied. Similarly, the outside look can range from ultra-modern, to traditional, to green walls — though sadly one of those hasn’t been built yet. The modules can also form mid- or high-rise blocks.

Richard Rogers home for sale
£3.2 million: a four-bedroom house in Wimbledon designed by Richard Rogers
The house going up in the RA courtyard won’t be fitted out inside — it is a shell, but with floors indicated, so you can imagine it however you like; and perhaps it’s the supreme versatility of these houses — along with their green credentials and the speed at which they can be constructed — that is their best selling point.

Information:
* Inside Out runs at the Royal Academy, W1, until October 13, (royalacademy.org.uk). The Homeshell will be on view in the courtyard free from August 13 to September 8.
* Richard Rogers’s house for sale can be viewed at homesandproperty.co.uk/rogers.
* Boris Johnson’s Vision 2020 for housing can be found at london.gov.uk.

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