Dowel - Lam: to the power of three

The rural housing paradox

There is a paradox at work in any discussions on rural housing provision: numerous demographic studies reveal continuing population decline in remote communities but, conversely, there is considerable evidence of increasing demand for new, energy-efficient and, more particularly, affordable homes in these areas. The reasons for ongoing depopulation in rural areas and its impact on communities were alluded to in last week’s journal entry (see “taking the factory to the forest: a solution to the rural housing crisis”) so there is no need to reprise these here: the issues are well known. The bigger, unanswered question is, if there is demand, why does satisfying this market dynamic appear to be so problematic and, ultimately, expensive?

Cost, cost, cost

Land availability and cost are major factors - the lack of the first and the consequent ever-increasing price of those plots that do come onto the market. There is also the question of utilities’ supply which, if a site is inconveniently located (i.e. far from a main road), can introduce substantial additional infrastructure costs - and delays - to the build. A third significant expense is the cost of materials and the add-on of delivery charges involved when these are procured from distant factories and suppliers. The combination of these issues has resulted in a general consensus that it is simply more expensive to build in remote rural locations than in more urbanised situations where infrastructure already exists to serve their larger population bases.

Existing housing deficiencies

This consensus looks to the individual cost of a new property which, seen in isolation, is effectively a bespoke home, often designed and built to a non-standard design and expensive in both concept and built resolution. This is a quite different challenge to those faced by small remotely-situated rural communities. Here, existing buildings can be few in number and are often older, poorly insulated - and possibly 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.

We’ve always done it like this

Without new, affordable homes, population decline continues apace, but local builders, such as exist, all too often operate inefficiently and are far removed from the imperatives (and benefits) of Modern Methods of Construction (MMC). Traditional, weather-dependent construction techniques continue to be their modus operandi which, when combined with long lead-in times for deliveries of small amounts of materials from distant suppliers, can result in delays to the build programme and claims for unforeseen costs. There is little or no competition from volume house builders since the affordable housing market in these locations is, ostensibly, too small and too problematic whilst also lacking the considerable subsidy necessary to ensure consistent margins and sufficient scale to make the effort worthwhile.

rural housing delivery has three requirements: land, capital, construction

The market for affordable rural housing is bigger than you think

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 projections of current housing demand within the boundaries of their statutory local plans, as well as the likely timescale in which new housing in each community should ideally be delivered by. Ever-reducing council budgets, however, mean their ability to support the cost of new building work has diminished hugely over recent years and urban authorities have increasingly sought to attach conditions to planning permissions which require a proportion of affordable homes to be included in any new housing development. Ultimately, the cost of this is simply loaded into the price of the homes that are for sale, causing further inflation in local property values. Irrespective of the propriety or otherwise of this approach, it is a stratagem that simply doesn’t work for remote rural locations.

Innovation isn’t produced from convention

In the absence of a strategic national plan for the construction of affordable housing in smaller communities, the cumulative numbers required to quantify the total market size, year-on-year, need to be assembled authority by authority, community group by community group. The diversity of this market (due to geography, local culture, sources of employment, etc.) makes clear a one-size-fits-all response is inappropriate and that design and construction solutions need to be tailored to the exigencies of the specific situation: again, not an approach that fits the standard developer equation. So how to cut through the Gordian Knot that prevents the construction of high quality affordable housing where and when it is needed?

The power of three: a triumvirate solution to a triple challenge

The delivery of rural housing invariably comprises three inter-related challenges: land ownership, appropriate construction solutions and access to sufficient finance. It may seem counter-intuitive, but increasing numbers of remote rural communities have three assets, which together, can address these: the opportunity to own the land themselves (community buyouts), the possibility that the land acquired is also already forested, and that the community’s own labour can be applied to manufacturing and construction processes that embrace the use of locally-grown timber in the production of solid timber panels that can form the energy-efficient structures of new, affordable homes.

community land, community forest, community labour

Why Solid Panels instead of timber frame?

Yes, solid panels require more timber in their manufacture but they sequester considerably more atmospheric CO2 for the lifetime of the building, are fast to construct with relatively little specialist skill required, provide excellent airtightness and thermal benefits; less need for secondary structure and finishes with commensurate health benefits; have inherent fire resistance; create little onsite waste; and, with reductions in materials and weight, there is a corresponding reduction in the amount of plant and labour required to assemble the pre-fabricated elements. Most importantly, they can be manufactured locally at small scale, a benefit not available with glued mass timber systems such as CLT.

The advantages are even greater when compared with traditional masonry construction. The lighter weight of the structure means foundations can be reduced, construction is not weather-dependent, so buildings can be assembled in days, not weeks, with fewer trades required.

The longevity of mass timber construction and the value of this in remote rural locations will be discussed in a future post. Suffice to say, dowel laminated timber panels may be less well known and even less understood than other forms of mass timber but, in the right circumstances (one of which being rural communities) their potential value is immense.

off-site manufacture on-site