Urban Splash has long positioned itself as a pioneer of modular homes using, sustainable PEFC-certified timber products. In 2019 Urban Splash announced a deal to bring Japan’s biggest housebuilder – Sekisui House – to the UK, helping the developer create more timber, modular homes.
House by Urban Splash started developing timber homes using modular techniques in 2012, working with Liverpool-based architects shedkm and offsite construction partners SIG (formerly Insulshell) to create a prototype modular home for the family-housing market.
Q. Can you say a little about Urban Splash’s choice of timber as a building material for housing developments?
It was a move which came following our long track record of creating homes across the country; Urban Splash was founded back in 1993, and since then our company has tended to focus on regeneration, restoring beautiful old buildings and bringing disused structures back into life. We’ve transformed many architectural styles – from Georgian Listed properties, to Victorian mills to late 20th Century buildings
Our conversions were driven by social changes, namely of the move to the cities and growth of urban populations, especially in the North of England. This led us to pioneering the loft apartment concept inspired by Manhattan’s city living style. Soon , we moved onto the Victorian terrace – a concept which had long intrigued us and provoked our thinking about developing something new – perhaps a modern take on a Victorian terrace house for our urban and suburban sites across the country?
In 2016, after years of R&D and various design iterations, we brought the first 43 homes to market at New Islington in Manchester under our House by Urban Splash brand. Core to that brand’s offering is Town House which offers customers an adaptable design template via which they determine the layout of their home – and whether they want to live in a 1,000sq ft two-storey property or a 1,500sq ft three-storey property.
Q: Has the use of cross laminated timber (CLT) seen a growth in the use of structural timber in construction over the last few years?
We’ve seen many benefits using this on our House by Urban Splash Mansion House apartments; all of the panels are made using CLT, as it’s a much more sustainable than traditional building materials like steel and concrete. It’s great for insulation, retaining heat in the winter and keeping it out in the summer. It also delivers the same structural strength as reinforced concrete and installed correctly, it can be completely airtight, helping to ensure fire safety.
In a tribute to Marcel Breuer’s modernist approach, at Mansion House, the aesthetic of the building also forms the look of the homes themselves, and that’s another reason why it’s a great material. The exposed CLT forms the main structure as well as the internal walls and ceilings.
Q: The Mansion House Apartments scheme has used PEFC-certified CLT made from Radiata Pine and sourced from Northern Spain – what were the drivers behind this decision?
The benefits of CLT over other construction materials, such as steel and concrete, are clear to see. The pine has is traceable via Chain of Custody certification, so we can be confident it is responsibly-sourced. CLT is also easier to transport and quick to assemble on site which helps to cut build time, costs and emissions.
Q: How important to Urban Splash is the use of certified timber and the assurances that the raw materials are from responsibly-managed forests investing in chain of custody certification?
Very. We can guarantee the sustainability of source materials and the standards of manufacture and employment at source via our supply chain. PEFC certification provides assurances that the forest owners from where the wood is timber is sourced, are managing their forests to meet strict environmental, social and economic requirements, and they’re not just focusing on profit. This has become increasingly important for to all our stakeholders. including the environmental conscious residents who want to live in a sustainably built home.
Q: Choosing certified timber not only delivers healthy, natural buildings but ultimately drives healthy forest management – is this something that the architectural/building designer profession understand?
As an industry we are getting there, but there is still much work to be done. Collectively, we all need to invest in research and development to learn more about the benefits of timber, and its use in a sustainable way.
Q: To achieve a more sustainable built environment and hit the 2050 Net Zero carbon emissions target, what more can innovative developers (and the timber housing supply chain more broadly) do
A comparison of the use of concrete, steel, aluminium and wood in construction shows how much more sustainable this natural material is. Despite all the energy used in the extraction and manufacturing processes, emissions from wood construction will never match the amount of carbon that is kept ‘sequestered’ in the CLT. Further to this, CLT is made out of renewable wood and does not require of the use of fossil fuels in the manufacturing process. It is without doubt, something that developers should be incorporating as part of a progressive commitment to sustainable practice.
However, it is clear that the house building industry is still lagging behind its adoption of modular and timber homes; a Forbes article earlier this year claimed that during the 2017-18 period, only 7.5% of the homes built in the UK were modular – compared to 15% in Japan, where our colleagues Sekisui House are market leaders. In Japan the scale of home production is so enormous and the technology is so advanced – it can sense when a person is home, run a bath for a child and withstand an earthquake, all at scale. Our partners were genuinely surprised at how far behind we are in the UK even in adopting MMC and timber as our norm.
Of course, we don’t want to overstate the exciting new options that MMC can bring. It’s our role to invest in R&D and find out which materials are most viable and sustainable, then offer that in the UK market. Ultimately, our relationship with Sekisui allows us to invest even more in R&D – ensuring that we’re finding new ways to adapt our product and keep our Houses at the forefront of the industry.
For more information visit: urbansplash.co.uk