Charity YMCA has taken a lead in creating affordable accommodation for the young people it helps. But the modular housing initiative has already come up against London’s minimum housing standards, which mean the new homes struggle to achieve a permanent housing planning consent.
The initiative has created YCube, a new small flat that is factory built, and can be created for around £50,000 per unit. Designed by architects Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners, the project has already gathered momentum following the completion of 36 units on a first site in Merton.
Each compact unit has a walk-in living room with kitchen and breakfast bar, a double bedroom with a bathroom containing basin, toilet and shower. Externally, a large deck area adds to the feeling of space. Big windows and high ceilings provide an airy feel, despite the units only occupying 26 square metres.
YCube’s Simon Tanner says the initiative was born of a shortage of suitable accommodation for young people, who need to move on from the charity’s hostels into their own affordable place. By redefining, and redesigning the affordable home unit, YCube can deliver homes in London boroughs at a rent of £150 per week – less than anyone generally pays to share a house. A £10 per month service charge covers running costs.
Speaking recently to the GLA’s housing committee, Tanner explained that the units are constructed in a factory in Alfreton, Derbyshire using a timber frame structure, providing a highly insulated envelope with low running costs. Delivered by truck and craned into place on site, “they are very, very quick with minimal disruption to our neighbours.”
The properties are let on assured short term tenancies, but the idea is that within a three to five year timeframe, tenants should be able to gather a deposit to enable them to move on. “We class them as move-on accommodation.”
While expressly developed for short term housing, Tanner said the units are designed for the long term. “Our view is that the ones at Mitcham are there for the duration. They have a minimum design life of 60 years, they are completely mortgageable, we have a whole basket of lenders who are more than happy to lend against them. But they are also demountable, so for those people who have land, but only want to use it for, say, five years for temporary housing, they can put YCubes there, and then move them somewhere else. It’s a very flexible solution.”
“We’re not at all precious about how we use YCubes,” he added, “so whether people actually want to put them in place because they already own the land, and it’s going to be a permanent solution for the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years, that’s fine. If people have got land they want to put them on for five years, that’s fine as well. Our big concern is making sure that there’s good quality affordable housing for people who need it.”
“The constraint is what you can put on the back of a lorry. So our cubes are 4 metres by 7 metres, 3.5-4 metres high, you can go a bit longer than that.” Future deliveries will be modified a little, based on the experience at Mitcham; exterior decking will now be built in at the factory, rather than on site – potentially saving another three weeks.
“At Mitcham they are two and three storeys, you can go up to five storeys without needing steels, and then after that you’d need steel supports. But in terms of density, my own view and the view of our architects is, three storeys is about right, you don’t want to go too high because it looks a bit too crammed in.”
Also at the housing committee meeting, Barbara Brownlee, director of housing and regeneration at the City of Westminster, pointed out her problem with the compact units. “It is not a one bed flat, the space standards for them are 37sq m – and so we don’t have them. That is the difficulty, and we have to sort it out – it is hostel accommodation. There are more developers than just YCube wanting to come into London and build hostel size accommodation – there are many.”
But she later lent her support to the initiative, acknowledging the quality of the YCube flats: “I wouldn’t want to lose the standard and the speed of building, and the type of building. So you can have a debate about size, but that is also really important, given how much we need to build, how quickly. So I think we’ve got to remember both sides of what YCube are doing.
Tanner admits that the quality of the YCube flats may, in fact, create a fresh issue down the line: “The challenge then is what they move on to, when they’ve been in very, very good quality accommodation as a single person.” He is already working with the architects on YHome, a larger unit that would combine two YCubes either side by side, or on top of one another creating a new terrace home.
At Mitcham, Merton council’s planners did acknowledge the space shortfall, noting YCube is 30% below the expected minimum size. But in recommending approval for the scheme, they noted: “London Plan policy 3.5 D however states that development proposals which compromise delivery of elements of the housing standards policy may be permitted if they are demonstrably of exemplary design and contribute to the achievement of other objectives of the Plan.” The scheme was approved with an informative making clear its approval did not establish a precedent for units that fail the space standard.
The site used in Merton belonged to the council, having stood fallow since a community hall was demolished in 2004. The council has nomination rights to half of the units, while rents are about 65% of open market rents locally for a one bedroom flat.
With Mitcham completed, Tanner is now examining six further projects in detail. He is sanguine about other organisations taking on the YCube concept, with the YMCA happy to earn a fee to feed back to its charitable works, for any consultancy input it provides.
LPA Perspective: Three cheers to the team behind YCube, for getting it off the ground. Too many bright ideas about more modern homes, or more affordable homes, simply fail to move from concept to reality. This one has real potential to make a significant difference. And YCubes could also be built for sale, in jurisdictions where the planners are happy to accept their diminutive size.
Planners at Merton also get three cheers, for deciding to swerve around the size issue, as raised by Brownlee in the GLA debate. There are good reasons why housing has minimum space standards, and the YMCA does not want its YCube flats to be housing families with children, in years to come. But there are also equally strong reasons why young people, or just single people, will trade space in their home for the opportunity to live in London at a rent they can actually afford.
Others, such as the new private rented sector landlords, are grappling with similar issues. Planners are sniffy about them creating new compact studio apartments – sometimes avoiding planning by using permitted development rights – but the market will decide what young renters deem acceptable.
Will YCubes become a common site, on patches of land around the capital? There are plenty of people who would welcome them – and their ability to provide “meanwhile” accommodation, while landlords, local authorities and planners work out what to do next, could transform the amenity value of idle slices of land. Here’s hoping.