The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already highly challenging time for the Scottish housebuilding sector. Pre-coronavirus, the sector was faced with balancing an increasingly urgent housing shortage with a post-Brexit skills shortage and ambitious government targets on carbon emissions. Now add to that mix the closure of sites across Scotland since March, stringent guidelines on workplace distancing and the prospect of the deepest recession in a generation. With housebuilders looking for innovative ways to survive - and thrive - in the Covid-induced slump, could modular homes be the answer?

Modular homes are pre-fabricated homes which are built off-site, in repeated sections or modules, in a factory before being transported and assembled on-site to produce the completed result. Benefits of this type of house build include:

  • Speed – up to 90% of construction can take place in a factory set to controlled conditions; this allows for more streamlined working methods and avoids weather-based constraints and delays.
  • Quality Control – construction takes place under tightly controlled factory conditions and digital quality control systems, reducing defects and snagging.
  • Energy Efficiency – research indicates a significant reduction in carbon footprint resulting from this method of construction as construction times, deliveries of materials to site and wastage of materials are all reduced. The thermal performance of modular buildings has been shown to be better than that of traditional masonry buildings, resulting in improved energy efficiency.

    With so many benefits, then, why is modular housebuilding not more mainstream in this country?

    Firstly, heavy investment is required upfront. Huge factories need to be built and expensive, specialist systems developed. Training is needed to upskill workers as new technologies are introduced. Faced with a significant depression in the economy, it may be quite the leap of faith for housebuilders to make such a substantial investment when the returns may take several months, if not years, to materialise. Secondly, there is still a need for a fundamental shift in attitudes when it comes to these types of homes; many consumers and – crucially – lenders need convincing that 'modular' does not have to mean utilitarian and substandard, that these homes are attractive and built to last.

    It appears, though, that the tide may be turning on this. Last year, BoKlok UK Limited, a housing developer jointly owned by IKEA, gained planning permission to build 173 new 'flat-pack' homes in Bristol; the new homes, which arrive in kit form, ready for assembly on site will be available for market sale and also to support social and affordable housing schemes. And Scottish modular homes provider The Wee House Company has followed up the completion of 31 affordable homes for North Ayrshire Council with the launch of a new housing development brand Connect Modular, which will supply developers and housing associations with affordable homes – 90% completed and fully fitted out – for arrival on site.

    As more of these schemes appear in Scotland and the rest of the UK, awareness of and confidence in modular homes will rise amongst consumers, lenders and developers. But more than that, modular homes could become the much-needed catalyst to kick-start the housebuilding industry in the 'new normal' created by Covid-19.

    With the most part of production carried out in a factory, and modules delivered to the housebuilder fully fitted with kitchens, bathrooms, plumbing and electrics, builds can be completed on site in a matter of days rather than weeks and with fewer workers involved – minimising delays and making it easier to comply with the physical distancing guidelines.

    And with one of the few perceived benefits of the pandemic being a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from depressed industry activity, the more environmentally friendly modular method of construction will go some way to appeasing the heightened government and media scrutiny anticipated going forward in relation to the carbon footprint of the industry.

    Covid-19 has brought many things to an abrupt halt, but one thing it hasn't hindered is Scotland's need for more housing. Whilst there may be risks to housebuilders in embarking on this type of development, with confidence and innovation, modular homes could offer a life line for the sector in these extraordinary times and a welcome opportunity for Scotland to produce high-quality, low-carbon homes in the volumes required and within the constraints of the Covid new normal.


    Amy Cugini

    Senior Associate