2016 IAA Design Award: Best Use of Timber
A venture into modular social housing.
The challenges of affordable social housing are ever present; lack of suitable sites, rising construction costs but restricted funding, a growing social need, improving regulatory requirements and rising expectations all collectively mean that finding innovative solutions to a basic problem must be sought. Many are looking at the problem from a variety of angles and as architects, we felt that we should bring our ideas to the table too.
In 2008, when the world teetered and fell into another financial black hole and people lost their jobs, incomes and, in many cases, their homes, the local authorities were faced with increasing numbers of homeless people. A solution that could not just provide a solution in one location was needed. The Highlands and Islands have additional difficulties with available construction labour and remote working as well as transient homeless issues.
We responded with JNESpace. A subsidiary company was formed to explore volumetric modular construction to provide one-bedroom flats that would be fully compliant with Housing for Varying Needs guidance and also meet the council's financial constraints.
Modular social housing
Use of massive wood
As a basis for the design, we considered the use of CLT. This solid timber product provides enormous rigidity, sound and fire resistance properties, all of which are very useful in low-rise flatted accommodation. The downside of this is that CLT generally has to be imported which reduces its environmental benefits and increases costs. Nevertheless, we explored this with our partners at Glulam Solutions and generated our designs accordingly.
The next issue was to find a possible project to use as a live example. We approached the Highland Council who were open to new options. They identified a site in Alness that was a former council yard and previously to that a WWII base. The light touch bases with void below the floor instead of strip foundations and solid floors helped mitigate site decontamination costs.
Procurement rules are prescriptive so some flexibility was needed by the council to accommodate this factory based approach. We employed Carbon Dynamic in Alness to manufacture the units to our detailed designs and assemble them onsite on the prepared bases by our sub-contractor Simpson Builders from Beauly. The external staircases were modularised too and assembled by DMH Blacksmiths of Inverness.
It is rare for architects to be developers. It presents challenges, but a general willingness by all parties to engage and address issues resulted in this first for the Highland Council. In 2014, the scheme was completed and the first tenant was a homeless man fulfilling our original objective.
The project won the IAA Design Award in 2016 for Best Use of Timber and is one of the earliest examples of modular social housing in the UK.