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Ideal homes

Precast housing systems could be a major new growth sector, says Martin Clarke.

As the projected need for housebuilding has risen again and land availability continues to be a problem, it looks more and more certain that four, five and six storey buildings will play an increasing role in meeting the demand.

I am very optimistic that factory-engineered precast systems will have a major and increasing role. They are ideally suited from the bottom up, with strong foundation and basement systems to meet the demands of brown-field, made-up and sloping sites.

Top precast companies such as Bison Structures, C V Buchan, Tarmac and Bell & Webster are showing keen interest in public and private projects, with the skills and systems developed for the busy student accommodation and prison building programmes now being adapted for housing.

The precast sector is offering high quality systems with, for example, internal room finishes that can take direct decoration without renders, together with a whole range of alternative external claddings.

Coupled with the traditional precast advantages of fire and acoustic performance, good thermal insulation and durability, the value offered by precast really does make the prospects excellent. In addition we are seeing innovative thinking coming into play with the Panablok system from Marshalls, the new low-rise Quickhome system announced by Roger Bullivant and new ideas from Composite Structures.

I think others will also enter the field as the attractions become more obvious. Unlike much of the timber and metal lightweight systems market, the products are 99% domestically sourced with all the implied economic and sustainability advantages.

The Egan Construction Task Force report, Rethinking construction has paved the way for a new era of precast structures - the much higher usage of precast in the European housing industry has given everyone a target to go for.

I am hopeful that the factory- engineered precasters will get involved in demonstration projects including the Urban Village developments, will tap into the excellent Housing Corporation scheme for innovation and will play a significant role in the new Housing Forum.

I saw a new German precast plant in May which was turning out great numbers of excellent modularised housing units, completely fitted out and shrink-wrapped before transport and rapid assembly on-site - all sold on the Internet. Perhaps this was a glimpse of what we might see in this country in the next decade.

Martin Clarke is British Cement Association's director of marketing.

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