London terrace, REalyse

With limited space in London, building on the ground isn’t a sustainable solution for the amount of new homes needed in our city. So could building up, and on top of current structures, be a viable answer? We take a closer look at what our client, Apex Airspace, has to say.

Read Time: 5 minutes

Everyone from experts on the subject to your next neighbour has, at some stage, suggested a fix for the UK housing crisis. Solutions range from white papers by the government to modular home initiatives that have been successful abroad.

The problem with a lack of supply and too much demand in the housing sector is a UK-wide issue. But one of the latest ideas for tackling the problem is related to London, England’s capital. If it’s successful, it could be the blueprint for other cities around the UK to follow.

What is that solution, you ask? Trying to find space in London is a bit like searching for a needle in a giant haystack, which means that building on the ground isn’t a sustainable solution for the amount of new homes needed. However, building up, and on top of current structures, starts to paint a different picture.

As developers and planners look to the skies, could building on top of existing structures be the answer to London’s housing problems? Could it, in turn, provide an outline that can be replicated by the rest of the UK?

60,000 reasons

According to recent research by developer Apex Airspace, there are currently 60,000 sites across the capital where buildings of two and three stories could be extended with pre-made units. Apex Airspace’s current plans involve building 800 homes (enough to house 2,000 Londoners) over the next four years.

In a similar study, Apex identifies potential rooftop development density of 1.14 homes per hectare in the London Borough of Camden. If this is extrapolated to the entirety of Greater London, upward extensions could produce a staggering 179,126 new homes. That would account for 42% of London Plan 2015 Housing Target for London.

Using steel and timber, units form the bases of self-contained flats that are essentially complete before being taken on site. Think trying to slot one shape with another in a game of Tetris, and you’re not far off from the semantics of placing one new home on top of an existing one.

With two completed schemes and a further site in northwest London’s St. John’s Wood already under construction, Apex Airspace plan to target national retailers’ superstores as the basis for further units. They have already purchased a site nearby Tooting Bec tube station, which can contain up to 18 units.

Building homes away from home

The idea of building property away from the site where it’s set to be housed is a tried and tested method in other countries. Sweden, in particular, has successfully implemented modular homes – which are built off site in a factory.

The modular solution is one that is starting to make its way to the UK, with areas in Birmingham and Manchester already trying this type of housing structure. As for building upwards, units are also constructed off site, before finding their way to a rooftop near you.

Building off-site in quality-controlled environments has several advantages. And a city like London stands to benefit the most, where construction sites in the capital often cause disruption on many different levels. With the units being transported, the actual building work takes place away from the public’s eye.

The irony isn’t lost on London’s spiraling home prices. The city’s appeal as a hotbed for jobs has meant that demand has seen a price surge – one that’s becoming unsustainable. Those dealing in the arts of building upwards believe there is also a price advantage.

Units attached to already-constructed buildings are expected to cost between £300,000 and £500,000. With the average home in London just shy of £650,000, building up could be the answer to affordable housing in the capital.

The majority of these homes would be available on Help to Buy schemes, which could help young families and first-time buyers that may otherwise struggle to buy a home. There would also be a number of homes built for social housing. By building on top of LB and RP stock, developers like Apex can economise on land. This may mean wholly affordable schemes in central London become increasingly more viable.

Planning and permission

Changes in planning permission are also more likely to make building upwards an easier task. Recent revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has made it easier for homeowners and developers to apply to create homes above existing commercial and residential properties.

The idea of building up might seem advantageous, but it’s not without its problems. Local residents will likely be opposed to current building structures changing in their local communities, especially as London starts to become an even denser place to live. However, building up is certainly more favourable than wholesale demolition, followed by a lengthy re-development project.

In fact, airspace development provides an alternative to the estate regeneration model and allows densification whilst allowing residents to keep their own homes exactly as they were. In addition, part of the payment for the airspace lease is usually spent on improving the existing building, such as upgrading the communal areas or bringing the building in line with updated fire regs.

However, while the UK might be one of the densest countries in Europe, it’s still a long way away from becoming like Hong Kong in terms of building upwards. In fact, if 5% of London’s built up area had the density of West London’s Maida Vale, which is the densest square kilometre in the country, it could mean an extra 1.2 million homes.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane…

There’s no doubt that innovation is needed to solve the current housing problems. Companies like Apex Airspace have identified a potential solution to the lack of new homes constructed in the capital. If it’s successful, many other developers could follow suit and start looking up to the skies to crack the case of London’s housing conundrum.

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