Jon Stinson and Julio Bros Williamson: Smarter, better, faster – homes built in a factory benefit everyone

Jon Stinson, Research Fellow in Edinburgh Napier University's Institute for Sustainable Construction
Jon Stinson, Research Fellow in Edinburgh Napier University's Institute for Sustainable Construction
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THE methods we use to build homes in the UK are constantly evolving. We moved from rudimentary timber structures to masonry, and back to timber through more sophisticated insulated timber panel systems.

Then we had factory-based ­off-site manufacturing, with much of the assembly still taking place at the building site.

Julio Bros Williamson, Research Fellows in Edinburgh Napier University's Institute for Sustainable Construction

Julio Bros Williamson, Research Fellows in Edinburgh Napier University's Institute for Sustainable Construction

Now fully factory-assembled homes have emerged as the next step in the evolutionary process.

These homes, made up of service pods and modular systems, include fully finished floors, walls and ­ceilings which can be transported and craned into place; sometimes already fitted with windows, doors and services.

It is not without its criticisms or challenges, but essentially the future is bright. We have a system that saves time and has less impact on the ­environment than other processes.

The challenge now is for all our buildings to meet current sustainable building standards in Scotland, potentially marrying lower energy demand and carbon emissions with higher levels of occupant wellbeing, better selection of materials and improved energy performance. It is a big ask, so the accuracy and efficiency of factory assembly is becoming increasingly attractive as we move into the era of the ­modular home.

Many new homes are now built in a factory, with modules craned into place at the building site

Many new homes are now built in a factory, with modules craned into place at the building site

Achieving low energy homes is linked with losing less heat through uncontrolled ventilation. Many argue that the solution is simply to have a sealed envelope. However, this creates issues of poor indoor air quality, discomfort and health concerns.

Indoor air quality is a particular concern in homes where people are in intermediate care and recovering from illness after being discharged from hospital. A home with poor air quality often suffers from low levels of thermal comfort that can prevent quick recovery and lead to hospital readmission.

Designing and building new homes dynamic enough to accommodate our needs as we grow old in them is a priority, reducing the need for downsizing and ­retrofitting, and is something that the modular characteristics of volumetric homes can provide.

Although the concept sounds attractive, there is a tendency for low carbon homes to be electrically heated, operating and regulating themselves differently from the current ways in which we control, heat and ventilate our homes. Perhaps this is where the ambitions of so-called smart home technology can help.

Retrofitting simple sensors into our homes provides a glimpse of how smart our homes can be. ­However, they are currently assisting relatively trivial elements of our modern ­routines and lifestyles.

We are far from having an actual smart home, at least one which makes a fundamental difference to our health and energy bills. The industry refers to the ‘performance gap’ – the gap between an aspired energy performance and the actual energy we pay for after we’ve moved in. New technology-heavy homes need to maintain this theoretical performance to assure low carbon levels.

For this to succeed in practice and not just in theory, the home needs to be truly smarter. This requires an interface that can tell us what we need to know, when we need to know it.

Such technology does not mean overwhelming users with data on small screens, but presenting actionable information like “bedroom two is at risk of condensation”, or “you have spent 25 per cent of your monthly energy budget” or “the air quality in the living room is overheating and reaching unhealthy ­levels”. That is actionable information we can use to improve our comfort and quality of life in real-time.

For a truly comfortable, low carbon smart home to exist, sensor technology needs to be integrated seamlessly with the fabric of the home and within all of its individual parts – heating system, ventilation system, renewable energy system, windows, carbon detectors, smoke alarms etc. This is a level of integration that would be technically ­challenging – almost prohibitive – to retrofit, but is practically effortless in a factory.

If you consider that a new home already comes with its boiler, lights, fuse board, energy meters and ­ventilation systems, then why shouldn’t it have a single embedded system to help manage them all more efficiently?

This is where the volumetric ­system has its advantages; having factory-made modules pre-fitted with smart sensors for indoor air quality, comfort and energy consumption whilst communicating information to us through artificial intelligence. The next step includes automatic adjustment of environments, such as conversational chatbots and embedded ­sensors communicating to health professionals or emergency services.

Volumetric homes rolling off the assembly line that are fully smart enabled, providing a new, enhanced user experience and wrapped up in a low carbon package, are certainly a game-changer. This way, designers are embracing smart and healthy homes, and the Government and the NHS are enjoying positive saving spin-offs.

Jon Stinson and Julio Bros Williamson, research fellows in Edinburgh Napier University’s Institute for ­Sustainable Construction.