In a world where “genuinely affordable aspirational housing” (Richard James) for the youth is rare and homelessness is sky rocketing; modular, temporary housing may be a viable solution. The YMCA Y:Cube by Roger Stirk Harbour +Partners is a “self-contained and affordable starter accommodation for young people unable to either gain a first step on the housing ladder or pay the high costs of private rent”. They are a “modular, demountable system of studio apartments that are perfectly designed for brown-field sites”. The prefabricated units are 26 square meters each; complete with lots of natural light, walkways/balconies, an internal courtyard, an inbuilt galley kitchen, bathroom and furniture. The services are incorporated in the factory and then connected onsite. This means that the construction takes very little time (5 months in this case), and requires no scaffolding or water; making it very quiet and neighbourly as well. The materials are very eco-friendly as well. It uses sustainable timber panels with superior levels of insulation, solar paneled roofs and are, of course, air and water-tight. This combination means that heating bills are reduced by up to 80% annually.
In fact, everything about this design and proposal is extremely affordable. Residents pay only 65% of the market rent and, as previously mentioned, heating bills are significantly reduced. Each unit costs roughly 30,000 dollars to produce, including kitchen and bathroom services, furniture and appliances. The project, unveiled by Brandon Lewis MP (the Minister of State for housing and planning) is part of a 500 million dollar investment into tackling homelessness (since 2010). It is also funded by a 337,000 dollar grant from the Mayor of London’s Building the Pipeline Scheme, not to mention investments from Trusts including Tudor Trust and Trust for London. In the city, average monthly rents are 1,500 pounds a month and annual increases of 20%. The rental prices are this high due to the severe housing shortage. However, since 2008, more than a third of the 63,000 new homes needed annually have not been built. The government has no fixed citywide quota for affordable housing; leaving it up to the local authorities which eventually meant that fewer than 4,700 affordable homes were built between March of 2014 and March of 2015. This is a completely unsustainable but these “plug and play” modular homes may be a viable solution, with some development.
However, one of the head architects – Richard James – asserts that this development is “not competing with traditional housing” but is targeted at key workers and students in London. Though the units have a lifespan of 60 years, leases will only span 3-5 years; enough time to allow the residents to get back on their feet. Dr. Melissa Fernandez, from the London School of Economics, has been researching the employed youth’s housing crisis. In her opinion, the Y:cube may not be replicable but is a “viable model” for developers and government authorities to follow. “A focus group of young employed private renters suggested that for it to be a PRS [Private Rented Sector] alternative, added benefits like central locations and significantly lower rents may need to offered as part of the prefab package” says Fernandez. It is “too specific to become a developmental norm” but is, nonetheless, a step in the right direction.
Wendy Omollo, 24, is one of the first residents of the Y:Cube. Previously sleeping rough on the streets of Kingston upon Thames, she came to YMCA London in February 2015. She was made homeless, when she lost her job and was unable to secure another. All residents are required to either study, volunteer or work but as no deposit is required she was able to get back on her feet. She is now getting a National Vocational Qualification and is attending an assistant manager course. “By having my own space with my own front door, I will regain my independence” says Omollo. Shantae Whyte, another YMCA resident who was asked to test the Y:Cube, says she feels more “grown-up, mature… secure”. This is extremely important when it comes to youth regaining control over their lives and should be a priority for housing authorities charities like YMCA cannot be the only organizations funding affordable housing.
“There just simply aren’t enough trained bricklayers or electricians to build all the homes we need, nor the bricks or other materials to build ‘conventional’ homes” says Phil Morgan, a housing consultant and former housing regulator. “We’ve got to find a way to house young people more cheaply and build differently”. Perhaps, with some development, cheap, modular units such as the Y:Cube could provide a solution to the ever-inflating affordable housing crisis.