How building prefab residential pods above car parks could help alleviate the housing crisis

It’s no secret that the housing crisis blighting this small, overpopulated island of ours is caused primarily by scarcity of land. But what if you could put up houses without land?

That isn’t to say homes would be constructed under the sea or suspended in the air. Rather, the proposal from ZEDfactory is to erect prefabricated units above existing car parks. So how might the idea work in practice?

ZEDfactory was founded by Bill Dunster Architects in 1999 and is exclusively committed to low-carbon building and development. The company has delivered a number of schemes in the UK and abroad - projects are now under way in Dubai and China - and its new ZEDpods concept maintains the focus on sustainable building.

ZEDpods are homes built on elevated platforms above car parks, so there’s no need to find unused land on which to build and, because there are no foundations, no loss of parking space.

Bill Dunster believes his company could produce and install more than 5,000 ZEDpods a year in the UK. And that, he says, would be “only the tip of the iceberg”.

In theory, ZEDpods could radically increase the supply of affordable homes. In practice, however, it isn’t immediately clear that landowners will want ZEDpods or indeed whether anyone will want to live in what is basically a prefab on top of a car park.

Dunster has no such concerns. “People really want their own homes but they can’t afford the land it sits on, and yet there are large areas of unused asphalt all over the UK,” he says.

Each ZEDpod has a balcony, a micro kitchen with a dining table, a bathroom, sofa space and a mezzanine with a desk, a double bed and a wardrobe. And, due to a number of design components, including solar panels on the roofs, high-spec insulation, heat recovery, ventilation and large, triple-glazed windows, the occupant won’t need to pay utility bills.

At £65,000 to buy a one-bedroom ZEDpod (larger versions are available from £110,000) or £650 a month to rent and maintain one, the homes are aimed at young people who want their own space. And for tenants choosing to stay long term, a lease purchase agreement would mean they owned the house outright after 25 years.

Key worker appeal

“It’s a good deal compared with renting a room in a shared house,” says Dunster. “With ZEDpod you have privacy, your own front door, a balcony and zero energy bills.”

As well as helping cash-strapped young people to enjoy the privacy of their own space, Dunster also hopes the units might appeal to key workers, such as junior doctors and teaching staff, who might otherwise have to commute long distances to work.

It’s a novel idea, but it isn’t for everybody. Dunster describes the units as a short-term fix to enable people to save money before they find more permanent homes. But ZEDpods are far from temporary structures.

Dunster says they are made of high-quality, durable materials that should ensure the fabric of the buildings lasts at least 20 years without needing maintenance. “They could last 60 to 70 years, which is similar to the lifespan of an average house,” he says. “They’re not Portakabins. We’ve worked hard to make them pleasant.”

They’re not Portakabins. We’ve worked hard to make them pleasant

The idea for ZEDpods came to Dunster as a logical extension of his company’s work. “We’d been producing zero-carbon homes and more recently we’d been looking into installing solar farms over car parks in urban areas,” he says. “We decided to merge the two.”

It’s taken three years from the first sketch to bringing them to market. Now, having patented the design and secured £4.5m of investment in its latest funding round, ZEDfactory is ready to deliver, Dunster says.

The company has built a prototype home at the BRE Innovation Park in Watford, which is designed to showcase the concept to local authorities and landowners and to show off the quality of the design.

Home from home

ZEDfactory has a funding partner that will build, maintain and lease pods back to councils and NHS trusts for use as key worker housing in exchange for long-term leases for air rights above their car parks.

One possible appeal to landlords and developers is the ease of installation - and removal. Although Dunster describes them as “super stable”, their lack of foundations allows them to be brought in and taken out by forklift truck and moved from site to site.

“Some of these sites lie empty for 20 to 25 years. We could bring them into use,” says Dunster. “And it wouldn’t affect the landowner’s development opportunities because, when they want to build on the land, the ZEDpods could be redeployed somewhere else. During the lifespan of the units, they could be in three or four different locations.”

The possibilities don’t stop there. The units can be configured in such a way as to create eco-villages complete with communal areas such as shared lounges, bars and cafés, retail and even galleries to create new neighbourhoods.

“I like the idea of these being not just housing, but contributing whatever is missing locally,” Dunster says. Indeed, some of the local authorities he has been in discussion with - particularly those with car parks close to transport hubs such as railway stations - have asked whether ZEDfactory could incorporate workspaces into their schemes.

Dunster claims he has had a “very good reaction” from planners, although some have their misgivings despite the security of the model.

“There is literally no risk. People don’t believe it,” Dunster says. “There is a perception that the homes are too small, but at a minimum of 25 sq m they meet national space requirements and are comparable to very generous bedsits.”

Dunster plans to open a number of pop-up manufacturing sites in new or existing industrial units. Once the processes are worked out, each ZEDpod could be produced in a matter of weeks, Dunster says, with “very little” investment. “It isn’t inconceivable that we could have five to 25 factories. It would genuinely create local labour.”

Dunster and his team have identified 220,000 to 250,000 suitable car parking spaces on which ZEDpods could one day sit, but he anticipates a tough ride in delivering anything like that number.

We really can solve the housing crisis without losing chunks of green-belt land

“The UK is a very difficult place to introduce innovation because the climate isn’t right for it,” he says. “There are perceived problems but really it’s the Great British fear of the unknown. Other countries are setting far higher standards.”

One argument in ZEDpods’ favour that might not receive such a nervous reaction is that they could prevent councils having to release green-belt land in order to meet housing need.

“It’s a big challenge, but we really can solve the housing crisis without losing great chunks of green-belt land,” says Dunster. “And it’s possible to do it with an adequate return on investment. It just takes a bit of imagination.”

Dunster’s novel idea might be met with scepticism in some quarters but, if the UK is to ease the housing crisis, new concepts such as ZEDpods need to be given a fair hearing.

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