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07 April 2017

Innovative Housing #1 - Housing for Generation Zed

Picture of a ZEDPodPhoto credit: ZEDPods

To enable members to make the most of the Welsh Government’s Innovative Housing programme, CHC will be publishing a series of blogs examining some of the various models of innovative housing available to the sector, as well as providing updates on the details of the programme itself.

The first blog post is written by Hugh Russell, CHC’s Policy Officer, and looks at ZedPods.

ZEDPods_Parking New Homes from ZEDfactory on Vimeo.

“All I need is a shed and a car park” says Bill Dunster, founder of the award-winning Zed Factory and an innovative force in modern architecture.

Bill is showing me, plus representatives of Crisis, The Wallich and the WLGA, around a prototype ZedPod – not just a home but a Swiss-army knife! A versatile tool capable of levering open a multitude of problems faced by social landlords and, in particular, those tenants and would-be tenants who are aged between 18 and 35 and reliant on the UK Government for housing costs.

Raised on stilts, above 4 car parking spaces (2 of which are still accessible to cars in the prototype we visit, though 3 vehicles could potentially be housed beneath the pods), the ZedPod is a compact, energy neutral home for one (or two sharing). Aesthetically it’s striking, though it’s hard to take much from the prototype as the cladding can be amended to suit different briefs and Bill’s idea is that the pods would be most effectively laid out in terraces facing one another, with sheets of glass bookending the terraces’ shared mid-sections.

Warm, well-lit and neatly laid out, the interior is designed to make good use of all available space. A table folds into the wall, with two fold-up chairs neatly slipping behind it when not in use. The kitchen/dining space downstairs is compact but comfortable, with space for sofa, kitchen units, hob/oven, etc. Each home is designed with a terrace on which sits a table and two chairs, increasing the living space available to tenants. Upstairs is a movable double bed and a desk space, providing space to study.

The building currently costs £65,000 to buy, but Bill is hopeful of knocking £10K off this when developing in bulk. He refuses to even discuss cutting costs when it comes to components, stating that it is details like the triple glazed windows and the patented foundation-layer that make the building the success it is. He does note the opportunity to drive down costs on the construction line and is a keen advocate for getting those young people who make up the target tenant group to build their own homes, where appropriate.

High quality, low cost and an employability opportunity for tenants, the ZedPod is already an appetizing proposition, even before you begin to factor in the range of additional benefits offered:
  • No energy bills for tenants - Power is provided from photovoltaic panels on the roof, feeding a lithium ion battery stored beneath the house, supplemented by electricity accessed from the same power source used by streetlamps. Bill’s looked at 30 different carparks as potential homes for ZedPods and all have had the capacity to supply sufficient energy.

  • The buildings are not designed to stand in isolation, as the one at the Innovation Park does. Instead they clamp together to create whole communities in terraces, with the potential for communal open spaces, or even shared kitchens, between the terraces.

  • A patented base-system means the car park takes no more weight from each home than it would from a single car and, apparently, it would take a tank to make significant impact on the steel girders holding the house up. This could offer a use for excess car-parking space forced onto HA developments during the planning process (though Bill foresees the use of supermarket and park and ride carparks, both of which would provide access to urban centres and jobs for tenants).

  • A fifty year anticipated lifespan (though Bill is of the opinion that his houses will last much longer) is projected. Bill suggests that an £8-10K ‘refresher package’ after 25 years would have the building as good as new.

  • The quality of the home is high, particularly given the cost. The walls are ‘un-kick-in-able’ and Bill describes the overall as ‘very airtight, very durable, very fire resistant’.

  • Cladding of any type can be provided, varying the look of the buildings. The size can be amended too.

  • Rockwool insulation is used throughout for both acoustic isolation and non-combustible heat insulation (indeed fire risk throughout is minimised – the decking is made from FSC certified wood treated so as to be non-combustible and the cladding is similar; Bill asserts that rigorous testing has demonstrated a one-hour burn time anywhere in the building).

  • An office version is available, which may be of particular interest to those who provide supported housing.

  • Breathable walls – the ZedPods don’t use vapour control seals, meaning that humidity doesn’t stay in the house and no urethane compounds are utilised. Instead a vapour-permeable air tightness membrane maintains breathability.

  • Electric Vehicle Charge Points are affixed to the wall, with an eye to the future (it is anticipated that electric power could be the dominant form of propulsion for all new cars sold in the UK by 2027)

  • Welsh housing associations committed to keeping their spending in Wales will be pleased to hear that Bill is keen to work here – many of his components, such as the galvanised steel frames, are constructed here already and if he can establish a factory in a warehouse, he knows that there is a workforce available in south Wales who can build his product. He takes a holistic view of the process and is keen that ZedPods provide sustainable employment opportunities.

The construction of the Zedpods is an impressively straightforward process. The one we’re standing in was constructed onsite in a day, using just a forklift truck. Similarly, the factory construction is a simple process, again needing only a forklift and unskilled labour. The components are fabricated elsewhere and pulled together in the warehouse. Bill is keen to establish a warehouse in Wales, with a ‘show-zone’ in which workers are housed on the same site, ideally in ZedPods they’ve built themselves. He calculates that he’ll need 240 square metres of factory space per ZedPod per week.

Some concerns were raised during our conversation, which Bill answered head on. Anxiety about fumes from the cars parked below were met by a confident assertion that the air-pollution onsite would be lower than on any residential thoroughfare in the UK, on the basis that parked cars produce no fumes. Planters at either side of the house would improve air-quality. Sprinklers can be fitted, though, as with other schemes, the additional cost is inescapable. Concerns about social cohesion can be addressed by a terrace of mixed single and double pods, meaning landlords could house a mixture of tenant demographics, and accessibility issues would be met by the addition of a lift (and the potential for bungalow versions of the pods to sit below the raised versions). Clothes drying is done in the bathroom, or via a washer/dryer.

Two financial proposals are put forward:
  1. The pods are taken on a long-term lease – Bill has investment behind him and would look to recoup costs for his investors, but this would still represent a cheap option.

  2. The pods are bought outright.

In response to our questions about the bottom line, Bill puts in a call to his FD who does some quick calculations on how much could be raised at current interest rates on a personal mortgage based on £250 pcm rent (a rough estimate of what might be available to a 21-35 year old on housing benefit): the answer that comes back is roughly £60,000 at interest only or £30,000 repayment plus interest (over a 20 year period).

A few big questions remain unanswered by our visit, which we’ll raise with the appropriate bodies:
  1. Can Welsh Government confirm whether they will support the development of these buildings, despite breaches of DQR in their design? (N.B. recent discussions suggest that Welsh Government will be looking for submissions for funding from this programme to be ‘appropriate and comfortable’, rather than meeting current requirements to the letter.)

  2. Will lenders back them? Their lifespan, low cost and high quality will stand in their favour, but we need to explore this further.

  3. Will they pass muster with planning? Although they do so much to answer questions asked of housing providers (not least in their innovative use of land), they are undeniably different in their looks from traditional housing and this may be an issue at the planning stage.

Some of these questions may be answered by Curo Housing in Bath, who are currently working with Bill to convert hundreds of under-used lock-ups into ZedPods (apparently, they’re midway through their second stage of resident consultation).

With £5m of private investment behind him, Bill is raring to go with the development of ZedPods and invites the Welsh housing sector to join him. With interest from colleagues in local government and the support sector, the opportunities to collaborate on a development of ZedPods are there..

Look out for the next post in this series in a few weeks!
Hugh Russell
- Policy Officer, CHC