Now There’s Housing for the Homeless Built in a Factory

The prefab modules of London’s Y:Cube project snap together to make an apartment building.

(Photo: Facebook)

Sep 10, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Building permanent housing for the homeless keeps people from sleeping on bus-stop benches and streets—and has been proved to save cities money. But while small villages of tiny houses, such as the one in Austin, Texas, are appealing, housing for thousands of homeless folks—or affordable units for people who make minimum wage and can’t afford market-rate rent—is needed too. That’s where Y:Cube, a newly opened complex in in London, might come in.

The colorful 36-apartment project, which is run by the YMCA London South West, opened its doors on Tuesday. Roughly half the residents are formerly homeless individuals who were living in shelters, and the other half are young people who weren’t be able to afford a studio apartment on their own and thus were at risk of homelessness.

What makes Y:Cube particularly innovative is the way it was built. Instead of being built in a traditional fashion on-site by a construction crew, Y:Cube is a modular structure built in a factory in Derbyshire, nearly three hours north of London.

The studio apartments are created with renewable timber and come with all plumbing, wiring, and heating components already installed. Once a unit is finished, a process that takes about five months, it can be put on a flatbed truck and transported to wherever housing is needed. The individual apartments can then be stacked or put alongside one another, plug-and-play style. If they need to be moved, they can be unhooked and rebuilt in a different location. (The cool time-lapse video below gives you an idea of what the build process is like.)

“Factory construction is just common sense,” Simon Tanner, the YMCA’s Y:Cube development consultant, told The Guardian about the building methodology. “You wouldn’t buy a car that was built in a field, so why buy a house that’s been built that way?”

The idea is the brainchild of award-winning architecture firm Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. The company is perhaps best known for rehabbing Terminal 5 in Heathrow Airport, but with Y:Cube, it took on the challenge of designing homes for formerly homeless and economically strapped residents.

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Y:Cube residents will pay about $230 week—65 percent of the cost of a fair-market-rate apartment on the southwest side of London. Some of the formerly homeless individuals living in the units have received YMCA services and have been connected to employment opportunities that will help them pay the subsidized rent. Still others, as is the case with many down-and-out folks, may have a job but were sleeping in cars or on friends’ couches because they couldn’t afford a place of their own.

Folks who have homes in the complex seem thrilled.

“By having my own space with my own front door, I will regain my independence,” Wendy Omollo, a 24-year-old who was formerly homeless, said in a statement. “But it’s not just that. As the rent is affordable and I can stay for up to five years, I’ll also be able to save money for a deposit. Basically, when the time comes to move on from Y:Cube, I will be in a far better situation than today.”

Could the concept work in the U.S.? Approximately 610,000 people in the U.S. are homeless, and efforts to provide housing to them have paid off. Moore Place, an 85-unit facility built in Charlotte, North Carolina, saved the city—and taxpayers—$1.8 million in 2013.

But Alex Ely, an architect who worked on Y:Cube’s design guide, cautioned that the project isn’t the ultimate solution to the need for economical housing. “There’s a danger that this becomes an excuse for local authorities not to deliver long-term solutions for affordable housing and merely use these types of buildings as a stop-gap—like the post-war prefabs, when there was a desperate need to build quickly. We should be careful that we’re really spending time getting it right,” Ely told The Guardian.