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16/01/2020

Nothing new under the sun?

They say that the revolution’s near – but to Louise Brooke-Smith it seems it’s all just a little bit of history repeating itself

I was asked recently whether I agreed with a colleague who felt that they had “heard and seen it all before”. I said it was probably an age thing and they would also claim that policeman were all looking younger these days too. But, on reflection, perhaps we do have a tendency to forget that some of the miracle solutions being peddled by well-meaning politicians or circulated on social media are simply old ideas given a new paint job and actually there isn’t anything new under the sun. Is my colleague alone in suggesting that we have indeed heard much of the current rhetoric before?

As we head into 2020 with the climate emergency, the housing emergency, and the education and NHS emergencies, we have the joy of our leaders claiming to have new solutions. But are they just regurgitating tried-and-tested strategies and presenting them in slightly newer wrapping paper?

Perhaps it’s that wrapper that is the critical element. If you think of that paper as technological advances then does it matter that sometimes we forget that we have had some of those brave new ideas for some time already, but under a different pseudonym or wrapped up in old technology?

I am a strong advocate of not reinventing the wheel, but when ‘needs must’ it’s different. I would suggest that climate change and our dire housing situation constitute pretty urgent needs, and the wheel can and should be repackaged. After all, the penny-farthing has morphed over time into a slick carbon fibre-racing bike fit for Chris Hoy. The principle of wheels turning under pedal power hasn’t changed. It’s the improved technology that has been wrapped around it that has made the difference.

Take modular construction. Given the skills gap, the increasing challenges of sourcing materials and some of the procurement and policy red tape many agree that it is our best bet for getting effective and viable housing out of the ground quicker. But it’s not new.

“Climate change and our dire housing situation constitute pretty urgent needs”

There have been variations on the prefab theme for years. Birmingham isn’t the only city that has examples of off-site constructed dwellings that were erected in the 1920s as part of the Homes Fit for Heroes programme that are not only still standing and occupied but are statutorily listed. And you can go back further to different forms of timber-frame structures from mud huts to wattle and daub. Technical innovation and mass assembly, à la a Ford car production line, means that economies of scale can be addressed and the whole supply chain becomes a far more viable proposition.

Internationally, off-site assembly is regularly seen as a standard approach to housing construction and it doesn’t mean that design quality is compromised. Clever architects can give character to any box. No, the difference is technical innovation, and a change in culture that supports a viable production regime and an economy of scale so we can do things differently to address increasing needs.

Digital technology and the sharing of design data can mean that a home can be designed, construction materials sourced, service ducts and interiors manufactured and everything transported to an assembly point where a unit can be assembled, loaded on a transporter, moved to a site and erected before you can say “Where’s the brickie?” He is probably still some miles away on his penny-farthing, cycling past a church and remembering Ecclesiastes 1:9*. Look out your old school Gideon Bible.

*Ecclesiastes 1:9 “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a development and strategic planning consultant and a built environment non-executive director

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