The UK construction industry is establishing a reputation for its rapidly growing modular sector. However, we're not yet world leaders so it's instructive to look abroad for some of the most striking innovations, to countries where modern methods of construction have occupied the mainstream for years.
Just across the Channel in the Netherlands is an inspiring example as to how social housing and sustainability can go hand in hand. HA-HA is a pioneer of offsite modular construction with several successes to its name. In partnership with BIK Bouw and Wooncompas Housing, it is developing four social housing blocks in Ridderkerk in a project that pushes the boundaries of sustainability in construction.
What is most striking in this case is not so much the building technique itself but the philosophy behind it which has inspired recycling on an unprecedented scale in the industry. The new housing is to occupy the site of a 1950s built housing estate and will use materials recovered by disassembling the old buildings together with a modular timber system. Not only does it cut back on the amount of new material used and the level of waste, thanks to the offsite process, but it also increases the amount of affordable housing by 13%.
The Ridderkerk blocks will use the existing basement and concrete structure as foundations. In addition, HA-HA has put together a catalogue of reusable materials including window frames and doors, which will be turned into planters and outdoor seating, and bricks that will have a second life in the landscape paths of the communal areas of the development. In addition to the communal space, every unit will have its own terrace and the green rooftops will encourage biodiversity. The work will begin in 2024.
The question that needs to be asked is why a social housing development that combines extensive green space with sustainable construction methods hasn't been tried in the UK. It certainly isn't for lack of expertise or need, as a Friends of the Earth report from 2020  amply highlights.
In their report they mapped the availability of natural spaces in communities across England and founded a profound imbalance in that availability as well as a clear correlation between ethnicity and deprivation of green space. Residents of black, Asian and minority ethnic origin were twice as likely as white people to live in such deprived areas.
London is a prime example of this gap. The population is nearly 9 million and has grown by 11.2 per cent in the past ten years. At the same time spending on communal outdoor spaces has fallen by more than 30 per cent according to the London Green Space Commission. There is a perception that the capital is in some way full and that the only way to accommodate its growing population is to cram more housing units into ever more limited space.
The Riddekerk experiment in the Netherlands shows that there are alternatives. The imaginative repurposing of existing sites, including brownfield ones, can make the building of sustainable social housing not only viable but desirable. If the designs for such projects are devised with community and environmental objectives in mind then those same sites can be transformed into ideal combinations of affordable, high-quality housing and much needed outdoor community space. That's a win for the environment and for people.