We’re in the midst of a housing crisis: too few affordable homes for our growing population. Quick wins are usually synonymous with shoddy quality, but meanwhile housing bucks that trend. We spoke with Lorna Walker and Rebekah Foote of Modomo to find out how temporary residential projects can reinvigorate districts and create long-lasting stability.
Our lack of affordable housing cannot be conquered in isolation; it is intrinsically wrapped up with the climate crisis. Solutions need to tackle both. That’s the concept behind meanwhile developments: providing efficient, accessible housing in underused spaces as a catalyst for community growth and resilience. It’s an idea very much in its infancy, but Modomo in the UK aims to change that.
Crisis? What Crisis?
Rebekah Foote is Modomo’s Head of Marketing & Communications. A passion for genuine social impact and positive change moulds her day-to-day messaging and public affairs work. She succinctly summarises the problem their team aims to tackle:
“There are too many people in poor quality housing, and not enough homes being built. This is only being exacerbated by Covid-19 and the pressures it has put on councils and those whose wages have been affected.”
So, what’s the solution? “We think meanwhile housing is the perfect fit.”
Meanwhile Under the Microscope
Lorna Walker is Modomo’s Chief Operating Officer and Head of Environmental and Social Governance. Following a successful career at CBRE, “the world’s largest real estate services firm”, Lorna decided to pursue her personal passions for social justice, sustainability, and diversity. This toolkit of skills and principles was a factor behind her appointment on the Board of Trustees for the UK Green Building Council and later spurred her on to co-found Modomo.
“We build semi-permanent homes on land that’s unused or underused. And then we try and turn that into really great places for people to live.”
Meanwhile housing is all about transforming a side-lined resource on our doorstep for positive social impact: breathing life into valuable city space. Erected on defunct car parks, open storage, or abandoned plots, temporary solutions are seeding thriving, desirable communities.
“We lease land for a fixed period of time rather than buying it,” Lorna continues, “and we put homes in it for that ‘meanwhile’ period”.
The average lease is 10-15 years. It might be land that’s completely forgotten or earmarked for future development but lying dormant while all the red tape is dealt with. Meanwhile makes use of this ‘in-between’ phase, either as the first consideration for reviving the site, or providing purpose at a late stage before permanent development sets in.
But Modomo is going one step further: their homes are fully relocatable so they can offer flexible housing solutions quickly and where they’re most needed.
Wherever I Lay My Meanwhile, That’s My Home
There’s not a lot of empty land in central London. So, what’s the secret to finding the perfect site? Knowing what is and isn’t already there. As Lorna says: “Trying to understand where the real need for housing is. Where is housing unaffordable?” Understanding the local landscape means Modomo can approach landowners that align with their core values in places where there is demand.
Further out from the city centre, empty land is more readily available. But this brings other challenges. Lack of public transport connections, for example. “You don’t want a community to be really isolated.”
No significant community can function without infrastructure. Before a meanwhile complex is installed, “we ask for services to be brought to the boundary of that site,” Lorna says.
Sometimes the master plan for a permanent development is delayed because pipes, wires, and roads aren’t in place. Where it’s possible to lay this down piecemeal, a site can be readied for meanwhile homes while developers work on the rest. This aids visibility; Modomo is out to create a flourishing, buzzing community – and that will attract residents, businesses, and further investment to the long-term development.
“We want to attract tenants looking for an inclusive and welcoming place to live, where they can feel like they’re in a supportive community,” Rebekah tells us.
There is a rising number of residents representing a ‘squeezed middle’ who aren’t reliant upon social rent but are priced out of private renting. Modomo’s low-cost commitment plugs this vacuum, which appeals to a range of people. Typically, Rebekah says, this includes “key workers, postgraduates, creatives, those working in service industries, and nearby residents looking for a new type of housing in their local area”.
Landowners are the ultimate landlord. But by leasing a plot, meanwhile agents can manage the landlord-occupier relationship to suit the site and stakeholders. For Modomo, this can be with and administered by:
- Modomo directly,
- a partner operating the site such as a housing association,
- local authorities,
- other registered providers.
“Modomo is responsible for securing investment for the developments from external parties, which includes both debt and equity,” adds Rebekah. As for leasing units, it’s the operating body that generates revenue by collecting rents. There’s no room for any agent to engage in under-the-radar exploitation or condemning tenants to energy poverty. Whether it’s Modomo policy or local legal frameworks at play, an element of rent control ensures developments remain true to their core value: providing a more affordable option to ever increasing market rates.
Future-proof Modular Mobility
The first Modomo developments in Bristol, London, and the Netherlands are on the path to delivery. It is expected that Modomo’s first residents will move in early in 2023.
Lorna is adamant that the modules need to be as good in 10 or 20 years as they are today. “It’s absolutely critical to us that it’s really high quality, and that it’s going to last.” They should be as homely and efficient to their second, fifth, or tenth occupant as their first.
Modomo is specialising in precision-engineered homes, light enough to move, yet sturdy enough to be secure and withstand being relocated from site to site over the decades. They are providing high-quality homes for their tenants, as well as ensuring the housing product is built to last as Modomo owns the physical assets.
Lorna recalls an eye-watering stat: there is almost 20% wastage in the construction process for standard homes, whereas “we are targeting less than 2%”. Not only can they minimise waste through design, but they can optimise the homes to avoid wastage; creating more space, higher ceilings and bigger units. It’s their ‘relocatability’ and a design that considers the full life cycle that also enhances the structure’s sustainability.
Modomo’s units are built “to net-zero operational standards”, they are airtight and minimise demands on heating costs. The homes offer supreme energy efficiency and the company has just signed up to the World Green Building Council’s Net Zero Building Commitment.
We’re currently far from tripping over meanwhile developments, so what are the barriers?
Meanwhile housing is different. Or, as Lorna puts it, a “game-changer”. That’s exciting, but also the biggest hold-up. Humans are notoriously suspicious of change.
Demonstration homes are known to work as leverage but as Modomo’s sites are still under development, there’s little tangible product for people to experience – to see, feel, and walk through. This is one of the most important lessons the process has taught them so far. Rebekah noted: “We’ve learned that if we introduce too many new concepts at once it’s harder to get buy in. When introducing a new concept; people want to visit and see what it looks like.” So now Modomo is busy building a model unit.
Persistent Planning Problems
The UK is falling short of building a target of 340,000 new homes per year to meet the demand for housing. The responsibility falls at the feet of local organisations, especially councils and housing associations. Meanwhile offers an opportunity to ease the shortfall, Lorna tells us, but only if they are open to “build new homes in a different way”.
“It’s also about relationships, and the outlook of the landowners, local authorities, and the boroughs as to how open they are to do something new and different.”
This willingness is further constrained by a traditional planning system, and Modmo is working with policy makers to look at a new and responsible solution. Thanks to Modomo’s groundwork, the Greater London Assembly now recognises meanwhile housing as part of the London plan after it recognised that it contributes to housing targets.
Progress has been easier in Modomo’s projects in the Netherlands, where changes to legislation and regulation already allow for meanwhile construction. “We’ve had to put more groundwork in the UK, just to help people understand what we’re doing”, reflects Lorna. It was a steep learning curve, it seems, getting to grips with planning and political systems. The strategic support garnered from establishing Modomo champions unblocked much of the bottleneck, so this route has become a “big focus”.
What’s in Store?
The reusable housing units need to stand the test of time, the wear and tear of being lived in, and being moved from one site to another. Oh, and the design must account for future climate changes. No simple task.
Future needs of housing are unpredictable. “This actually might be one of our biggest challenges”, considers Rebekah. “We’re trying to design and then build to a standard that we think might be in place in 10 years’ time.” That is problematic. But realistically, it is the same for all housing. The benefit of new meanwhile modules is they don’t need to be retrofitted, saving time, money, and disruption to tenants.
Could pre-used brown– or greyfield land contain contaminants that put residents in danger? “That definitely won’t happen”, Lorna assures us. Before Modomo even thinks about setting foot on a plot, the sites must be clean. There is legislation in place to protect and clean land for future generations: “It’s the landowner’s responsibility; we take over the land to build once it’s been cleared as safe for people to live there.”
Back to the positives. How exactly does meanwhile housing impact community?
It’s about more than giving people shelter. For Lorna, it is about “bringing real social value and social purpose to the area”. What this looks like varies. On one site “there will be workshops that will basically incubate small businesses, so it has quite an entrepreneurial vibe”. In some places, there could be “an industrial element” and elsewhere, live-work units, co-working spaces, or “creative and artist workshops” could be as much a part of the development as houses.
One constant on all sites is the community hub, a shared space that can be utilised for all manner of activities, to bring people together, share experiences, and generate a healthy communal buzz.
The Engagement Party
Even before the first residents move in, direct engagement with tenants is already an ongoing focus. “It is really important to us”, Lorna says. “We don’t feel like we can be bringing things forward unless we really understand the local community and their needs.” That’s why they adopted a “really robust community engagement process right from the start”.
They want to connect with residents who are often maligned in consultations, those who wouldn’t usually respond to a public planning application or are disengaged from or not exposed to “developments or new things happening” where they live. There’s a concerted effort to get them involved, to hear their voices. Most importantly, they can see their input makes a difference: their responses influence decision-making.
Save the Date
Residents are well-informed as a priority. No one moves into a Modomo module thinking they’re set for life. Occupants know the lifespan of the settlement. This is reassuring; it provides a sense of security, which in turn reduces the risk of homelessness, benefitting even the most vulnerable residents. In fact, many people will come and go within the project’s lifespan. According to Dataloft Rental Market Analytics, the average length of residency is around 18 months. As such, plenty of people are even expected to move in and out during the ‘warm down period’; the final phase before units move on.
A transition strategy supports inhabitants during this time. A choice of next steps creates a sense of empowerment for residents:
- For those who dig the fun, dynamic vibe, for whom being involved in that is more important than the micro-location, there’s a chance to move to another Modomo community.
- Alternatively, residents will be supported to transition into the permanent development growing up on-site around the modular units.
- A transition manager, an expert in the handover options, works “very closely with other local landlords and landowners to help people find homes in that local area” – the radius of which will be limited, so that residents can remain part of the community they know and feel part of.
What does it take for a meanwhile housing development to really succeed?
A Community Manager acts as the point of contact, through which potential residents start to build a connection with that community even before they move in. Maybe even before the development is complete.
When asked what else motivates stakeholders, Lorna offers: “It’s all about having a real, genuine champion within an organisation.” Someone who understands and is excited by the project and pushes it amongst their peers; someone who can talk to the board, field their questions, feed back what information may accelerate buy-in. “They want to do something different” that “has this positive social impact sustainably”. Without them, “it’s a real challenge”.
“You really need an individual who believes in you and is influential enough to help drive that through an organisation that might not be used to doing things so differently.”
It’s important that the developments are not just physically connected to the surrounding municipality, but in a sense of community spirit as well. It should reflect the identity of the local area, not be exclusive or excluded. Ideally, the “people who live around it,” says Rebekah, will “feel proud of the development” too.
Plans for amenities and green spaces add to the magic mix for making desirable neighbourhoods, an important part of the housing crisis often overlooked. “We’re providing services within the development to really create a fun, welcoming, community-oriented space to live”, explains Rebekah. “We really want people to enjoy living at Modomo and for it to be a good experience for them.”
And who wouldn’t want that for where they live?