What if buying a house were more like buying a car? Could the process of choosing between a Ford, Volkswagen or Nissan ever translate into picking between an Adjaye, Rogers or Assemble? Beyond the dream of ever being able to buy a house, the prospect of commissioning an architect-designed home is an impossibly remote prospect for most of us, a luxury confined to the glossy pages of Sunday supplements and Grand Designs.
But a pair of London entrepreneurs with a background in fashion and marketing want to change that. Speaking with the optimism that only people coming from outside the world of property development can have, the founders of Cube Haus are planning to “disrupt the housing market” and offer “high-design homes at reasonable prices” with a range of off-the-peg, modular designs by well-known architects.
For Philip Bueno de Mesquita, who founded sneaker brand Acupuncture in the 1990s, and commissioned David Adjaye to build a house in Kings Cross in 2004, it seemed like a no-brainer. “When you walk around Hackney,” he says, “you see these amazing new houses hidden away behind walls, which occasionally crop up on the Modern House” – an estate agent specialising in high-design homes. “But there are no developers rolling these out. Most buyers only have a choice between a period property or an uninspiring new-build.”
In the same way that developer Harry Handelsman commercialised the exotic idea of “loft living” in Clerkenwell in the early 1990s, Bueno de Mesquita and co-founder Paul Tully believe they have spotted a desirable niche, and want to roll out architect-designed homes at scale. They have commissioned a roster of different designers – beginning with Adjaye Associates, Skene Catling de la Peña, Carl Turner Architects and Faye Toogood – to come up with a range of models that can be adapted to fit awkward infill sites and backland plots, with the bulk of the structure manufactured off-site in solid panels of cross-laminated timber.
Given that the biggest obstacle to building new homes in London is access to land, they cleverly began their operation by setting up as land agents. Land Converter, founded in 2015, is styled as “specialists in buying and developing unused and awkward spaces”. If you want to sell off the end of your garden, an awkward garage, or even a bit of your roof, they’ll scope out the site, apply for planning permission and give you 25%-30% of the end value if successful. The landowner gets a say in which design is built, while the off-plan buyer has the headache of commissioning an architect and seeking planning approval taken out of their hands.
“One-off house projects are so expensive to do,” says Bueno de Mesquita, speaking from experience. “But we can create economies of scale that make innovative architectural design accessible.” Tully says their lower margins and use of off-site production mean the end product will be 10%-15% cheaper than an equivalent house in any given area. Targeting peripheral locations where land values are lower, Cube Haus are currently working on two sites in Forest Gate, London, where they hope one of their three-bed homes will be available for between £650,000 and £750,000. Other sites are in pre-planning stage in Peckham, Sydenham and Ealing, with the first homes intended to launch on the Modern House later this summer, and ready to move in nine months later.
The designs on offer range from a dark timber-clad box by Adjaye, seemingly modelled on his 2007 Sunken House in Hackney, to a stealthy courtyard house by Turner, and a simple pitch-roofed home by Toogood intended for more rural sites. Skene Catling de la Peña, architect of the magical Flint House, named RIBA house of the year 2015, has come up with a design that revolves around a central ceramic stove that rises through the building, containing the functions of cooking, heating, circulation and structural loading in one terracotta-clad core. The ceramic theme continues on the facade, with creamy clay tiles and a decorative base designed as a contemporary take on vermiculated rustication, with textured, wormy tracks cast into the surface. It’s full of the kind of crafted detail that would be unthinkable on most off-plan new-build properties.
“The idea that you can have a repeatable design that works for all these tiny plots is quite a tricky proposition,” says Charlotte Skene Catling. “Our solution was to pull all of the complicated bits of the house into a central core, and then have the skin adapt to fit the awkward geometries of the given site. It feels more like product design than architecture.”
With more than half of the buyers of new-build homes in England experiencing major faults with the fabric of their buildings, there is something to be said for treating housing more like a highly engineered product, with the level of quality control that a factory can achieve – rather than the usual medieval effort of throwing things together on site. The likelihood of planning objections could also be reduced, once the homes in question have become a tried and tested product, with physical evidence of exactly what will be built. But, crucially, the developer will have to prove that these modular designs can be properly adjusted to the specifics of each site, and not feel like a template that’s been airlifted in a priori, regardless of context.
Beyond Cube’s relatively boutique offer, momentum for off-site manufactured housing is gathering pace across the country. Your Housing Group has entered into a £2.75bn joint venture with a Chinese state-owned construction firm to build 25,000 modular homes over the next five years, while even Berkeley Homes now has a target of building 10%-15% of all its houses using prefabricated techniques, trialled in its rather underwhelming Urban House model at Kidbrooke Village in Greenwich. Insurance giant Legal & General has made the boldest claims so far, building a secretive facility near Leeds which claims to be “the largest modular homes construction factory in the world”, promising to churn out 3,500 homes a year. It may be faster and reduce construction waste on site, but the efforts it has revealed so far don’t bode particularly well for the design quality of these mass-produced homes. For all the efforts to dress them up with jaunty colours or stick-on bricks, most factory-made housing sadly can’t shake the whiff of its Portakabin ancestors.
If the Cube Haus duo can raise the bar for design, while showing local authorities how their awkward little plots can be cleverly utilised, they’ll be doing something right, especially if the model can be expanded beyond detached houses. “The aim is to build up a portfolio of building types that can be scaled up for sites that can accommodate a bigger number of units,” says Bueno de Mesquita. “That’s when it starts to get really interesting: affordable housing designed by some of the most exciting names working in architecture today.”
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