Photo by Sam Tranum

To deal with Dublin’s escalating housing crisis, Dublin City Council has begun planning for the construction of 400 prefabricated houses to accommodate homeless families. While some councillors are very wary, prefab housing has come a long way over the years and other countries have good experiences with it.

And besides, prefab houses for the homeless are probably coming to Dublin whether the council’s plan comes to fruition or not. More on that later. Let’s stick with the council for a moment.

This latest plan comes just about two months after councillors voted against the chief executive’s plans to refurbish 400 flats in O’Devaney Gardens – which were due for demolition –for use as temporary accommodation.

Some councillors said they voted against it because they felt the money would be better spent on permanent accommodation. (SeeAt Lunch With…Paul McAuliffe, also in this week’s Dublin Inquirer, for an explanation from one councillor who voted nay.)

But now even more money than was to be spent on making O’Devaney Gardens suitable for temporary accommodation is set to be invested in temporary accommodation in the form of prefabricated, or modular, housing.

The Dublin Joint Homelessness Consultative Forum, which is the board of Dublin City Council’s Dublin Region Homeless Executive, adopted this plan at its last meeting.

This idea has been around since 2013, when the council said it would devise a pilot for 2015 to demonstrate how prefab housing could be made acceptable. Something like the modular dwellings showcased in the Scottish Housing Expo. Now it looks as if a sizeable pilot scheme is on the way.

This despite the fact that, just six months ago, plans to build 200 prefabricated units were cancelled due to political opposition and the introduction of other provisions to deal with homelessness in the city. According to an Irish Times article at that time, the project for 200 homes was set to cost €20 million.

Though it was cancelled, that plan wasn’t long forgotten. The council budget for 2015 allows for spending on prefabricated housing for homeless families staying in hotels. Still, there continues to be much uncertainty and negativity about the idea.

“I have no problem with it as a very temporary measure, but there is no guarantee it won’t become long-term,” says Independent Councillor Cieran Perry. He can envisage prefabs being used long past their lifespans and possibly turning into “prefab ghettos”.

There has been no proposal to councillors yet about this most recent plan. They’ll discuss it at a special meeting in City Hall on 8 July. Perry says he wouldn’t be surprised if the initiative were implemented even if councillors vote against it.

Despite his opposition to the prefabs, Perry agrees that hotels are not suitable for families to live in. “Again, it was supposed to be a temporary measure, but there are people living there for eight months,” he says. He believes NAMA properties should be used to accommodate the homeless.

When it comes to prefabs, Lord Mayor Christy Burke says, “Anything is better than the streets or the back of a car.” (Although he was the one who submitted the motion against refurbishing O’Devaney Gardens.) But he says he believes the way forward is through an increase in rent allowance and then starting “to build decent homes”.

It is easy to understand why Irish people are sceptical about the construction of temporary housing. In the 1970s, the construction of school prefabs was allowed as a temporary measure to deal with a surge in the population.

In 2008 – when the country was most affluent – primary schools were still relying on them, with more than 40,000 children being taught in 2,253 prefabs throughout the country, some of which were well past their sell-by dates.

One of the most prominent examples of prefabricated housing was in England during the housing crisis created by the destruction that resulted from World War II. The Housing (Temporary Accommodation Act) 1944 saw 150,000 prefabricated homes built throughout the country.

Though these were designed as temporary dwellings, many of them lasted until the 1970s. Some lasted longer, like the Excalibur Estate in South London, which was only demolished last year.

Some people were unhappy with its demolition, while some were eager to redevelop the land. But a compromise was reached as six of the single-storey prefabs are now listed as protected structures.

But are these notions of decades-old structures relevant to today’s modern prefabs?

Lars Petterssen of Scandinavian Homes has been building pre-fabricated, timber-framed houses in Ireland since 1991; he believes the lifespans and quality of these buildings would simply depend on whether or not the council is looking for a “quick fix”, like they did with school prefabs during the 1970s.

Some prefabricated homes are only useful for ten years; over time these can be expensive and wasteful. Others – like the ones Petterssen constructs – last about 200 years, he says. “If you build it right, it can be much better than a cement-block house,” he said.

Andy Redfearn of the YMCA in London believes that past experience, prejudice and vested interests are holding back this modern method of construction.

His organisation is developing prefabricated houses in the city to help get young people back on their feet. He believes modern prefabricated housing should be a disruptive technology to the traditional housing-development model.

“This construction process enables us to deliver genuinely affordable housing, which is designed to last like traditional buildings but provide better thermal and acoustic performance,” Redfearn said.

Being able to move such homes is a huge benefit, Redfearn said, as they can be relocated to the places where they are most needed. There are concerns, however, that English councils may be purchasing prefab accommodation that is not quite up to scratch, because of high demand, he said.

The first units in this Y:Cube scheme will be completed next month and tenants will be moving into the single-bedroom units during August. Each 26-square-metre unit in the scheme costs a total of £50,000, including everything from foundation to walkway.

Larger units for homeless families offer greater value, says Redfearn, and the YMCA is awaiting the outcome of a tender with local authorities in London for 24 two-bedroom homes of 77 square metres.

“We know we can now do this without public subsidy,” says Redfearn. He believes a city like Dublin would be ideal to host Y:Cube-style housing.

At the moment, the only example Ireland has of temporary, prefabricated housing for the homeless is the Ripple container project.

This saw a shipping container converted into a home over the space of three days in the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art. It was donated to Saint Vincent de Paul in Cork to house a family for Christmas 2014, but it is empty today.

Although the structure was fully compliant with building regulations, planning problems were encountered when it came to putting it on a site. It is due to be relocated to Longford soon.

The Peter McVerry Trust is very much in favour of Dublin City Council developing prefabricated housing for the homeless of Dublin. In fact, the charity has been looking at developing some itself.

It has been viewing proposals over the past month and is hoping to have a pilot project in place by the end of the year, says spokesman Francis Doherty.

“The standard can be high and lifespan is similar to standard housing units,” he said. “New units can be developed quickly, so we would be happy to see it developed.”

Doherty believes the key benefit of prefabricated housing is that it can be placed on any vacant site around the city, even in a small gap between other houses.

With the Peter McVerry Trust forging ahead, it looks like prefabricated housing for the homeless will be coming to Dublin soon, whether the council’s plans work out or not.

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