A Lego-like approach to building houses, showcased in Hackney, could be pivotal in helping to rethink how we address the global housing crisis.
To prototype an approach to construction that makes automation and its potential for local communities tangible
Shift pillar: Social justice
UCL, London Borough of Hackney, The Building Centre, New City College, The Good Thing + Gonzalo Herrero, Hackney Wick Underground, L U C I N E, Studio Wayne McGregor, London Borough of Waltham Forest: Future Creatives, Valentina Soana + MArch Architectural Design (RC2) at The Bartlett School of Architecture
Construction and architecture are among the least digitised industries in the world. So, as we strive to address the housing crisis, there is real opportunity to rethink the way we build. A radical approach to automation demands that we reimagine the building blocks of architecture – but without turning our back on local labour, craftsmanship and knowledge held within communities.
One answer, according to a UCL team at The Bartlett School of Architecture, lies in a modular building system, showcased as House Block.
Using Lego-like blocks made from plywood, houses can be constructed easily in different configurations and adapted to suit diverse needs and functions. There are no beams or columns, stairs or floors, just one block that repeats. And because the blocks aren’t fixed, they can be assembled, dismantled, reconfigured and reassembled over and over again.
Harnessing automation, each block is CNC milled (a computerised manufacturing process) from a single sheet of timber. The pieces are then assembled into ‘blocks’ by hand, and post-tensioned together on site. The system is so intuitive, local communities can be quickly trained to build using this modular system, with minimal technical expertise or skills needed.
The prototype has been developed by Automated Architecture (AUAR) Labs, a research laboratory at The Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL. This project, sited on a former playground in Clapton in April and May 2021, was delivered in partnership with London Borough of Hackney with support from Manja Van de Worp, YIP Engineering.
Outcomes and benefits
The project was designed to demonstrate the potential of participatory approaches to housing, using digital modes of production.
Four week-long takeovers, hosted by the project partners, provided live demos of its potential. Local residents engaged in taster sessions, with paid opportunities that contributed to the local economy and gave people hands-on experience of the modular building system.
The team worked with local further education students and apprentices training in construction and building services. Other sessions introduced primary school children to the potential of automation and modular building practices.
The prototype became an activator for policy conversations around alternative methods of affordable housing delivery and development of small plots across the borough. It also initiated a partnership with ABB Robotics UK. This led to AUAR Ltd (a commercial spinout of AUAR Labs) showcasing the modular building system as one of the ‘green dozen’ at the UK government’s Global Investment Summit 2021.
“Architecture has to change. We need to approach it in a different way to protect the planet and respond to the global housing crisis – and House Block demonstrates a way of doing that; it is a prototype for democratising construction. We can take house building out of the hands of the large-scale developers and put it back into the hands of everyday people. New digital technologies, and housing projects that are delivered locally in microfactories, could help us completely rethink how we live and build together in the future.”
Dr Claire McAndrew, Co-Director AUAR Labs at The Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL
Featured image: Credit James Harris