Prefabulous: Yorkshire at the heart of housebuild revolution

Yorkshire is leading a housebuilding revolution with factories producing a new generation of homes. Sharon Dale reports.

The weather was right on cue when Housing Secretary James Brokenshire arrived to officially open the Ilke Homes factory near Knaresborough.

Lashing rain and high winds had stopped play on conventional building sites. Half-built houses were soaked while Ilke's production line of prefabricated properties rolled on, safe and dry inside a huge industrial shed.

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Not being weather dependent is just one of the advantages of this modern method of construction. There are many more, which is why a housebuilding revolution is underway with Yorkshire at the forefront.

The region now has three homebuilding factories, which can construct a home in half the time of a traditional build.

Transported on low loader lorries and taken to site, where each storey is bolted together, they can be erected within a day complete with windows, doors, fully-fitted kitchens and bathrooms, plumbing, electrics plus rooms that are painted, decorated and tiled.

Flaxby-based Ilke, which supplies housing associations, volume developers and small builders but not self-builders, was the first to start production in Yorkshire.

Its assembly line, which has 20 stations, aims to make 2,000 new homes a year within the next two years with plans to scale up to 5,000 homes a year by 2023. It is also keen to support the local economy so the kitchens and windows are from Yorkshire, as are the steel frames, which are made in Scarborough.

“We chose steel rather than timber because there is no room for measurement error and the steel is precision engineered,” says Ilke's Product and Marketing Director Nigel Banks.

Prices start from £65,000 for a small two to three-bedroom house, though this excludes the cost of land, foundations and connection to utilities.

Legal and General, which has a 550,000sq ft modular housing factory in Sherburn-in-Elmet, recently delivered its first home to a site in the South East and has capacity to make 3,500 homes a year.

Over in Leeds, developer Citu has opened a smaller-scale factory to make contemporary houses and flats for its Climate Innovation District development on Leeds' South Bank.

Award-winning Moduloft is also playing its part. This small firm is blazing a trail with patented extensions and lofts that are made at its headquarters at Brompton-on-Swale, near Richmond. They are delivered to site and craned into place in a day.

While prefabricated homes have been around for years and are common in Germany and Scandinavia, they have only recently been embraced by volume developers in Britain.

There was previously little incentive to use them as they were no cheaper than building a home traditionally. That has changed. A lack of skilled tradespeople and the drive to build more and faster has pushed up labour costs.

While plumbers and electricians are still needed in homebuilding factories, along with design engineers, most of the process does not require traditional construction skills.

So 85 per cent of Ilke's workforce is trained on the job to put the component parts together. The company employs 250 people, set to to rise to 750 in the next five years, and they come from a variety of backgrounds, including retail.

The cost of an Ilke home is now cheaper than a traditional new-build in the south, where labour costs are high.

“In the north where labour costs are lower it is still marginally less expensive to build traditionally but the gap is narrowing,” says Ilke's Nigel Banks, who adds that mortgageability, once a issue for prefabricated homes, is no longer a problem.

Other benefits of the modular approach include quality control, which is more effective in factory conditions. Brexit could soon be another compelling reason for developers to embrace 21st century prefabs

The construction industry, particularly in London, relies heavily on migrant labour, which may be constrained when the right to free movement is lost.

Bjorn Conway, Ilke CEO, says the firm is “building better homes in a better way” but estimates that factory-built properties will only make up 10 per cent of the new homes market in the UK. In Germany and Scandinavia they account for about 15 to 20 per cent.

“That's what I see happening in the long term here. The market will grow to 15 to 20 per cent. We are not replacing traditional construction, just enhancing it,” he says.

Both Ilke and Legal and General have plans to open other factories in the UK.

“We are looking at maybe opening another one in the south and possibly another one here at Flaxby. This is an ideal site and it also gives access to good employees,” says Mr Conway, who adds that he looked at 80 sites in the UK before choosing Flaxby, thanks to its location next to the A1 and to support from Harrogate Council.

Housing Secretary James Brokenshire says modular homes will help improve quality in the new homes sector.

He also believes that they will help him deliver the government's target of building 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s. Last year nearly 222,000 homes were built in England.

At Ilke's official opening ceremony last week, Mr Brokenshire said: “This is about challenging the ways we have done things in the past.

“We want to see an increasing number of these house production facilities to improve standards and increase output, We need to scale up and build more, better and faster. And that is precisely what this facility is about.”

*Ilke Homes range from teraced houses to semi-detached properties and blocks of flats of up to four storeys.

They have a steel frame which is clad then insulated and topped with render, brick slip, timber or other cladding. The interiors are then fitted out and decorated.

A house is built as three modules with the first floor, second floor and roof delivered to site on lorries.

They can be installed at a rate of six homes per day.