Councillors Seem Pleased With Prefabs, So What Next?

Yesterday, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive opened its display of prefabricated or “modular” housing.

The aim was to get elected representatives on side with Dublin City Council management’s idea of housing homeless families in prefabricated homes.

Most councillors seemed pleased with what they saw.

But if the council is to press ahead with prefabricated housing, there are still several issues to settle.

How much should it spend on them? Where should they go? And how fast can they be brought online? Winter is coming.

A Mainly Positive Reaction

Behind the North Strand Fire Station in Dublin 3, six examples of factory-built homes were on show, put up by companies for councillors to inspect.

In one tour group, independent councillor Christy Burke and Sinn Féin’s Ray McHugh and Greg Kelly were all impressed by the display. McHugh was taken by the homeliness of one structure. “I think it’s great,” he said.

Importantly, they would bring freedom to homeless families, said Burke. There would be no curfews and no check-ins. People living in them could cook their own meals, do their own laundry and maintain their dignity, he said.

“It’s better than some Dublin City Council bedsits.” And it’s certainly better than making millionaires of B & B owners who don’t even meet regulations, he said.

Of the six homes on display, four were of good standard, said United Left councillor Pat Dunne. But his was a cautious nod, because of concerns that the structures were untested in damp Ireland.

“We have to get families out of hotels. If it’s the only way to do it quickly, we should go ahead, but cautiously,” he said.

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Dealing With Earlier Concerns

In the past, many councillors had raised concerns that prefabricated homes should be a temporary measure, rather than a more long-term fix to homelessness. In particular, Deputy Lord Mayor Cieran Perry is uneasy at the thought that prefabricated housing might become a long-term solution.

But prices for a two-bedroom unit that meets all building standards range from €35,000 to €85,000. If the council is spending that much, then the calculations might change.

“My view is that whatever we do here, this is not a three-month, or a six-month, or a even a six-year project. I imagine that if we invest €100,000 or €50,000 in a house, that whatever we do, these will last for 10 years plus,” said Fianna Fail Councillor Paul McAuliffe. “Let’s accept that and accept the reality that these are practically permanent.”

McAuliffe’s view is that the council shouldn’t skimp. It should go for the better-quality prefabricated houses that will last over the longer-term. Families might pass through on a temporary basis so they’ll be temporary for them, he said.

The six houses on display have lifespans of between 30 and 60 years; some have 30-year warranties. As some see it, it would be wasteful to keep them for a short period and throw them away.

During his presentation, John Fitzgerald of Spacebox said that these units are a commodity. They can be moved again and again, and be repurposed to be used in schools or sold on.

His model home came in three pieces, two of which had racked up nine years of use in the Netherlands. All that had to be changed was the carpet flooring, he said. “My view is this is a hell of a lot better than a hotel,” he said.

There’s also another option if the council wanted to focus on the short-term: some of the ready-made homes are up for rent.

The cheapest two-bedroom house was from Portakabin and cost €35,000 to buy outright. The company’s representative, Anne Moore, said renting it would cost between €300 and €320 per week. You could get three of these for the price of a hotel room, she said. “And we could have 100 of these on site by Christmas,” she said.

On Site by Christmas?

Anti-homelessness campaigners say they want to see these modular houses come on stream before Christmas. But it’s unclear whether that will happen or not.

“Our concern is that without the power to fast-track through the planning and procurement procedures, we won’t see any modular housing until summer 2016 at the earliest,” said Pat Doyle, CEO of Peter McVerry Trust, in a statement yesterday.

That’s why Peter McVerry Trust has called for the government to declare an emergency, and give Dublin’s four local authorities the powers to speed the projects through without the usual planning and tendering processes.

Modular Homes Ireland, which displayed at the test site, could have 200 units in place within six months, said one of its architects, Ken Byrne. But current planning regulations would hold things up for a year, he says. He also sees emergency legislation as the solution to this delay,“even if it’s just for councils”, he said.

There are dangers to the cut-the-red-tape argument, though.

“Yes, it delivers it quickly but the first time we were shown around the flats in Ballymun, they looked great too. But there were real planning issues there,” says Fianna Fail’s McAuliffe.

The council should move fast and look at how to speed up the tendering, but he’d be against any relaxation of planning norms. The risk of creating ghettos is too high, he said.

“You can’t dump 50 houses in a field in the middle of nowhere with no services, no shops, no roads –that can’t happen,” he said.

Where Will They Go?

Right now, it’s unclear what site or sites Dublin City Council has earmarked for the modular housing.

It is also yet to be seen how Dubliners might react to news of these new houses being located on their streets.

The beauty of modular homes is that they can be designed to blend in with the sites they are placed on, says Barry Alder of Modular Homes Ireland.

“You don’t want a single look,” he said. “You want to modify it to blend with the site.” The company, which provides student accommodation in the UK and Holland, can stack units up to ten storeys high if necessary.

One of the biggest difficulties will be trying to locate these houses in areas where social housing has previously caused problems, says Francis Doherty, spokesperson for Peter McVerry Trust. “It’s a big issue that hasn’t been flagged yet.”

As Fianna Fail’s McAuliffe sees it, if you skip the planning permission and go for lower-cost options, then opposition from local communities is more likely.

There are always objections from local communities to projects, and “there will be objections from local communities to these projects,” he said. But, his argument goes, if you have quality modular housing in communities with good infrastructure and social mix, the local buy-in will be greater.

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Louisa McGrath: Louisa McGrath is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at lmcgrath@dubinq.com.

Reader responses

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daved
at 18 September 2015 at 11:57

Building them is one thing – maintaining them is another. If they don’t allow a big portion of their budget for maintenance they will disintegrate very quickly I’d imagine.

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