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Whether we call it a housing shortage, or a housing crisis, it’s no secret the UK is facing a serious problem. The lack of quality homes has been a key topic of discussion for many years within the construction industry. Back in 2017, the Mayor of London announced the need for at least 50,000 new homes per year in the capital. However, since then, only around 40,000 have been built, and only a little over 25% of those are considered ‘affordable.’ The disparity between need and production in residential architecture highlights a broader, but equally critical, issue - the problems and inefficiency of the wider construction industry. At Bryden Wood, we hope our housing design app, PRiSM, will help to form part of the solution.
Our problem as an industry is simple enough to understand; it stretches beyond residential architecture into other social infrastructure sectors as well. Traditional construction methods simply can’t meet the scale of demand for new built assets. Not now. Not in the future. The global population is increasing rapidly, set to reach 11.5 billion by 2050. Inefficiency abounds when every building is a prototype and we start from scratch with the design and build process each and every time. At Bryden Wood, we believe the key to solving both the housing shortage and the wider construction crisis lies in the use of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC).
By Modern Methods of Construction, we refer to those transformative and often technologically innovative methodologies which enable rapid, safe and efficient assembly of building parts rather than traditional construction. Tools and processes such as automation in construction, Platform Design for Manufacture and Assembly (P-DfMA), and computational design approaches can help us create a brighter future, both for the built environment and the construction industry as a whole. Our PRiSM housing design app is just one such tool. PRiSM brings speed and insight to the housing design process by harnessing the benefits of standardisation and automation, whilst promoting creativity and flexibility.
Our primary goal when we developed PRiSM was to help democratise the knowledge around Precision Manufactured Housing (PMH), a term which refers to homes designed and built using MMC principles. PMH homes can be built up to twice as fast and to a higher standard than those built with traditional construction methods. When we talk about using MMC techniques (platform construction, panelised, volumetric etc.), what we’re actually referring to is the ability to manufacture significant portions of the building offsite in more controlled factory conditions, using repeatable processes, followed by safe and rehearsed assembly onsite. Working this way reduces time and labour, while increasing quality.
The PRiSM project was completed in 2019 and launched in conjunction with residential consultancy Cast. Funding was provided by the Mayor of London with additional support from Transport for London, L&Q, Legal & General Modular Homes and Greystar. PRiSM has many different practical uses and benefits, but at a very fundamental level, the app can be seen as a launch point for digital residential design. Among other things, it begins to help us fill in some of the digital gaps left by the construction industry’s more traditional processes. It unlocks the potential for an automated digital workflow. PRiSM offers us a glimpse of what is possible. It opens up our imaginations.
Rather than creating PDF documentation about MMC processes and their benefits for housing design, we wanted PRiSM to aid understanding of core MMC techniques more directly. The app exposes spatial planning rules and MMC design rules to the users, which leads to greater understanding and ultimately accelerates PMH design. By eliminating the need for the type of specialist knowledge which typically surrounds MMC, the app fosters accessibility for a broad range of users with an interest in residential architecture. It brings transparency to manufacturing-based construction methodologies and makes the entire process of housing design more efficient and predictable. PRiSM makes it easier to assess the feasibility of projects.
As an educational tool, PRiSM helps designers to understand PMH better. In an effort to reach the widest possible audience and create the biggest benefits for the industry, we’ve made the app open-source and free to use. PRiSM makes it possible for developers, local authorities, housing associations, architects and manufacturers to design housing solutions very quickly. An apartment building can be designed in as little as thirty minutes. The web-based app is easily accessible and enables users to navigate to a specific site in London. Different map data layers facilitate better understanding of the neighbourhood. Simply select the typology of residential development you want to design, input your apartment areas and mix and start designing.
PRiSM allows designers to work with a range of housing types - linear corridor blocks, deck access, mansion blocks and towers. The app includes a pattern book of customisable apartment layouts. Once you’re happy with your layout and floor plate, you can assess which PMH systems are best suited to your design. Alternatively, you can design your building with a particular system in mind from the start.
PRiSM is quick and easy to use. It brings designers and manufacturers closer together, creating a common understanding and language. This enables a richer level of collaboration, including more advantageous conversations, which can occur earlier in the housing design process than they normally would.
One of the most important things about PRiSM is the research that sits behind it, achieved through the analysis of literally thousands of London apartments. PRiSM benefits from substantial research into a broad cross-section of residential developments, various typologies, areas and spaces within apartments. We wanted to understand just how much standardisation was actually taking place. We also wanted to map out all of the different typologies it was possible to build, in order to create a common language with which to talk about housing. Because of the density requirements of inner-city London sites, we initially focused on central corridor apartment buildings within PRiSM. We started with typologies which were most commonly in use and would therefore provide the biggest benefit. However, we built PRiSM so that it could be expanded to include additional housing typologies and geographies in future, if we were to open the app up for further adoption in suburban or rural settings. In this sense, PRiSM represents a truly open-ended workflow, with the potential for continual expansion and development.
The initial 2019 launch of PRiSM was well attended by a cross-section of people from the industry. However, the general reaction towards these types of MMC tools and processes within the industry remains mixed. Some people are excited about the potential and transformative functionality of new technologies, but others feel more threatened by things like automation in design and construction. At Bryden Wood, we don’t see these tools as detrimental to the jobs of industry professionals. Instead, we see them as opportunities. MMC technologies unlock potential to evolve our role as designers. With the time saving benefits created, we are able to design more buildings and infrastructure to a higher standard. Automation and digital technology give us the ability to explore more possible solutions in less time, choosing the best from a broader set of options.
PRiSM helps designers and architects to save time usually spent reinterpreting rules from design guides and building regulations. After all, it’s in the placemaking, the creation of positive user experience and stimulating aesthetic, that designers have the biggest impact and provide the most value in their work - not in repetitive processes like rules reinterpretation. It’s also important to recognise that tools like PRiSM don’t need to limit beauty or individuality in the built environment. We use standardisation like the hidden skeletal bones of a building, but the outer manifestation can be as individual and unique as we are as human beings.
When PRiSM launched, we deliberately described it as a broad but shallow tool. It didn’t develop the design for you, but it had lots of applications. Architects can use PRiSM to learn more about PMH techniques, including their rules, opportunities and constraints. Local authorities, housing associations and developers can use the app to drive standardisation across their estates, using a pattern book of apartments to deliver projects more efficiently, and achieving benefits like standardised maintenance regimes. Manufacturers benefit from learning more about the types of buildings architects working with MMC techniques can design. Contractors can use the app to validate designs and rebuild an architect’s work very quickly. PRiSM can also be used to model schemes for a tender, investigating how much module variation exists within a volumetric modular scheme, for example.
In 2020, Bryden Wood launched PRiSM 2.0, providing more granular control to the user. We increased the typologies contained within the app and expanded the pattern book of apartments to provide additional variety. We increased design freedom, giving users the ability to do things like reposition entrances in order to better respond to a site.
One of the biggest additions came with the introduction of geospatial data layers, which provide better understanding of the context around a site. This includes things like building heights, land classifications which reference conservation areas, transport infrastructure to gauge density more appropriately, highways information, which has a bearing on construction access restrictions, and even types of trees.
In future, we hope to develop the app even further, to include elements like early stage embodied carbon assessment capability as well as expanding PRiSM’s geographical footprint which would require incorporating even more typologies. Developing versions for other cities is also a possibility.
One thing we won’t do with PRiSM is duplicate functionality which already exists elsewhere. PRiSM doesn’t aim to displace any existing software, tools or workflows. With all of our Creative Technologies projects and automated design workflows at Bryden Wood, we aim to connect to other pieces of software that may be more proprietary - so that a user can carry on the design process in a more traditional way. PRiSM is designed to be an additional tool in the kit, one which helps architects and designers do their jobs. It isn’t there to be a threat. It’s a first step towards a digital planning approach. Aggregating all of these data sets provides more insight into the context in which architects design. At Bryden Wood we want to broaden the conversation about this topic and get more people in the industry talking about these issues.
The full power and benefits of automation must be recognised. We aren’t only talking about the creation of more ideas and possible solutions in significantly less time, or an increase in metrics leading to more informed decision making overall. It also means that more people can become involved in the decision about which solution is best for a particular site or project. This increase in participation leads to far greater benefits for the project than just progressing in a very linear way, resulting in one solution produced by a single design team. On top of this, having the ability to generate a data model and undertake significant amounts of simulation, allows aspects of a design to be tested much more rigorously than by traditional means. Together, all of these factors culminate in the delivery of the best possible buildings.
At Bryden Wood, our aim is to change the process of design through the use and adoption of technology. As we do this, we need to start to attract more diverse people into the industry. Working with technology in new and exciting ways helps with the industry’s broader image. In addition to our well-known problems with inefficient processes and insufficient output, the construction industry faces other, compounding issues - namely, a serious skills shortage and an aging workforce. As a result, it’s vitally important that we begin to encourage young people to come and join us. We must highlight the fact that new technologies are possible in construction, and make sure that such technologies play a key role in how we design and construct.
The construction industry should be a place where young digital natives can come and use their skills and passion for technology to do something meaningful to help tackle the climate crisis. However, if we don’t make this evident to them, they’ll go to work for pure technology companies instead. Construction and the wider built environment will miss out. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We took SEISMIC, our school design app, to a primary school in Hackney. This digitally intuitive generation of Minecraft players already have many of the skills we need. They were excited by the app. It stimulated their creativity and imaginations. We must begin exploring these subjects with children earlier, encouraging education around topics like automation and DfMA, alongside digital skills, tools and techniques in degree courses. These subjects shouldn’t be perceived as specialisms. We must start implementing them as the fundamental way we design going forwards.
The future of the built environment depends on our action. The time for that action is now.
You will find the PRiSM app here
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