23 May 2021

Creating the means to build affordable rural housing 

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“There is little or no competition from volume house builders in these locations since the affordable housing market is, ostensibly, too small and too problematic to ensure consistent margins and sufficient scale to make the effort worthwhile.”


Life in the UK’s remoter rural areas can be challenging, with costs inflated by distance from market, limited employment opportunities and poor infrastructure all being daily facts of life. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these issues and demands new and radical thinking to enable these communities to become more self-sufficient.


The lack of affordable housing is a major contributor to demographic decline and the ability to build new, high-quality, energy-efficient homes within the resources of local economies is fundamental to the future sustainability of small and often isolated settlements.


What are the problems?

Lack of land availability and the ever-increasing price of plots that do come on the market are the primary obstacles to affordable rural housing. Inadequate utility supplies – if a site is inconveniently located (ie, far from a main road) – can also introduce substantial additional infrastructure costs and delays to the build. Another significant expense is the cost of materials and add-on delivery charges when these are procured from distant factories and suppliers. Combined, these issues have resulted in a general consensus that it is more expensive to build in remote rural locations than in more urbanised situations where infrastructure already exists to serve larger population bases.


This consensus looks to the individual price of a new property which, in isolation, is effectively a bespoke home, often designed and built to a non-standard design and invariably expensive to construct. This is a very different challenge to that faced by small, remotely situated rural communities. Here, existing homes can be few in number and are frequently older, inadequately insulated, and poorly constructed properties, meaning high running and maintenance costs. In many of these places, full-time employment is scarce and available part-time jobs seasonal, meaning income levels can be low. In these situations, older properties merely contribute to the numbers of rural inhabitants experiencing fuel poverty.


Without affordable new homes, population decline continues apace. Local building companies are usually small and often unaware of, or disinterested in, modern methods of construction (MMC). The rural construction modus operandi is traditional and weather-dependent which, when combined with long lead-in times for deliveries of small volumes of materials from distant suppliers, too often result in delays to the build programme as well as claims for unforeseen costs. There is little or no competition from volume house builders in these locations since the affordable housing market is, ostensibly, too small and too problematic to ensure consistent margins and sufficient scale to make the effort worthwhile.


But is the market really too small? Certainly, the individual home or the small numbers required in a single community at any given time would suggest this, but the cumulative market tells a different story. Every council authority in the country is obliged to maintain forward projections of housing demand within the boundaries of their statutory local plans, as well as the likely timescale by which new housing in each community should ideally be delivered. For some time, however, many authorities have attached conditions to planning permissions that require a proportion of affordable homes be included in any new housing development. The cost of this, though, is simply loaded into the price of the homes for sale, causing further inflation in local property values. Irrespective of the propriety or otherwise of this approach, it is a stratagem that offers no benefits for remote rural locations.


How can timber help?

The delivery of rural housing comprises three inter-related challenges:


  • land ownership
  • appropriate construction solutions
  • access to finance.


It may seem counter-intuitive, but increasing numbers of remote rural communities have three assets capable of addressing these issues:


  • the opportunity to own the land themselves (community buyouts, particularly in Scotland)
  • the possibility that the land acquired is already forested with production species
  • the potential to apply the community’s own labour to manufacturing and construction processes that embrace the use of locally grown timber to produce the energy-efficient structures of new, affordable homes and other community facilities.


Taking the factory to the forest

The challenge is how best to use the timber from the local forest. The application of MMC and off-site manufacture (OSM) approaches normally implies fabrication in a distant factory which, for rural communities, means expensive transportation to their area. Buying in skills can also be costly, while conventional construction is weather dependent. The answer lies in taking OSM on site by making a modern, high-value construction product locally from timber sourced from nearby forests.


In this scenario, dowel-laminated timber (DLT) is an eminently appropriate fabrication method. This non-glued solid laminate timber technology may be less well known than other forms of mass timber but, in the right circumstances (one of which being rural communities), their potential value is immense. Most importantly, local manufacture at small scale is a benefit not available with glued mass timber systems such as cross-laminated timber. DLT, by contrast, requires no glues, nails or screws: the moisture content of the wood does all the work. 


In DLT, the layers of a timber panel are held together by hardwood dowels inserted into holes in the softwood lamellae. When produced manually, however, the dowel insertion process can be extremely time-consuming. Creating a mobile machine/press radically alters this to an efficient production method, automating the hole drilling and dowel insertion process to deliver structurally strong, stable and manageable-sized and panels. Making high-quality solid panels in this way has the potential to raise the value of the timber employed and thus deliver a positive contribution to local economies, as well as creating new opportunities for skills development and sustainable employment.


Making it happen

The only snag with this scenario is that such a machine does not yet exist. The technology certainly does – there are more than 20 DLT manufacturing facilities operating in Europe, producing various types of panel (stacked plank, cross laminated or diagonally laminated): the challenge is how the automated fabrication process can be reduced in size to be portable and produce panels that are easily manipulable by a small number of people.


It is a challenge that’s been taken up by the Build Back Rural project, a research and development initiative responsive to the changing circumstances in which rural communities currently exist. Traditional construction has proved itself impotent in the delivery of genuinely affordable housing in the remoter parts of the country, so will the project provide a practical and economically viable solution? All of the other elements of the proposed mobile factory are available: only the portable DLT press needs to be brought into existence. Work on this is well advanced: watch this space.


About the author

Peter Wilson, Architect and Managing Director, Timber Design Initiatives Ltd


Further information

To find out more, visit www.build-back-rural.com


This is a new release from the 2020/2021 Industry Yearbook Online. Download the article here