In London, the YMCA is combining prefab construction with stylish design to create a new kind of affordable home.
A new neighborhood is about to pop up in the London borough of Merton, transforming a vacant lot into a community of 37 “plug-and-play” apartments that assemble with little more than a screwdriver. Welcome to the Y:Cube, a factory-built solution that aims to put well-designed roofs over the heads of Londoners who must contend with the city’s high housing costs.
Andy Redfearn, director of housing and development for YMCA London South West, cautions against thinking of the Y:Cube merely as a solution for homelessness. “We want to make this aspirational—a cool place to be. A young person moving to a city would be happy to rent one out,” he says. “Even if there were no homelessness, there will still be a market for this type of accommodation.”
The project is a collaboration between the YMCA and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSH+P), a high-profile architectural firm. Redfearn approached RSH+P after watching more and more young Londoners struggle to move out of YMCA hostels. “All the good we do [with life skills and job training] gets undone because there’s an ever-decreasing supply of private rentals. People just get squashed.” he says.
Redfearn set out to develop a new option for single-occupancy housing that would be flexible, long-lasting, energyefficient, and cheaper than brick-and-mortar construction. RSH+P, working with Redfearn, developed a prefabricated system called Homeshell, which uses panels of glue-laminated timber. Ivan Harbour, an RSH+P partner, calls the Homeshell system “a high-tech, low-tech approach” that could “change the way we think about housing into the future.”
YMCA clients weighed in on the design of Y:Cube. Leading their wish list “is having their own front door,” Redfearn says. “A separate bedroom is important, and so is a private kitchen and an en suite bathroom. And they want it to look good.” The final design features a 26-square-meter (280-square-foot) layout with a galley kitchen, along with amenities that include natural light, soundproofing, and a high degree of energy efficiency. “We don’t want [renters] to have to choose between heating and eating,” Redfearn says.
Other features are less immediately visible. Because Y:Cube units are extremely lightweight and because they don’t require a foundation, they can sit on overpasses, above subways, or (with minimal cleanup) on brownfield sites. They’re designed to connect to existing plumbing and electricity lines, and they can be stacked as high as six stories. And if housing needs change, they can be disassembled and put back together elsewhere.
Redfearn expects residents to stay in Y:Cube units for three to five years—long enough to build a job history and save for their next move. Before getting the keys to their cube, tenants will go through a screening process to “prove they can live independently,” he explains.
The Y:Cube business model also aims for innovation. Low construction costs lessen the need for grant funding. “The whole scheme gets paid off through rents in 10 to 15 years,” Redfearn says. Four impact investors are backing the pilot project with support that includes the purchase of land. Redfearn expects future projects to attract banks and private lenders along with impact investors. YMCA London South West also plans to license the Y:Cube model to other housing providers.
Affordable housing advocates are watching to see how the project unfolds. “I doubt that it will be a solution by itself,” says David Smith, CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute, a global nonprofit based in Boston. “But there is never one solution.” He’s eager to see if single-occupancy prefab housing holds more appeal for tenants than simply moving in with a roommate. He also wonders how sustainable the Y:Cube initiative will be as a business proposition. “There’s quite a difference between operating a [YMCA] hostel and operating a rental property over the long term,” Smith says.
Construction of the Y:Cube units in Merton will start later this year. But Redfearn is already fielding requests from other communities that face housing shortages. Of course, people in some neighborhoods might have a “not in my back yard” response to these prefab structures. For them, Redfearn has a ready answer: “I tell people, ‘This is about housing for your kids who haven’t been able to move on.’ ”