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Platform design has transformed the automotive industry. Could it do the same for housing?

The UK is facing an acute housing shortage. A better use of modern construction processes and materials could fix this, enabling thousands more homes to be built faster, cheaper and more efficiently, potentially transforming the quality and specificity of UK housing. Yet as things stand, our dependence on bricks and mortar defines a sector that is technologically moribund. Are there lessons to be learned from the successes of the automotive industry?

Writing in the new Neighbourhoods of the Future report from AAA and Tata Steel, Kieran Singleton Co-founder, of automotive design specialists Forge Design continues: “Car manufacturers first recognised the benefits of platform manufacturing decades ago, to meet the challenges of increased product complexity, customisation, build quality and technological cost. Today it is standard practice.

The housing market embraced mass pre-fabrication in the post-war period, to address urgent housing needs. However, its legacy was compromised due to the quality and utility of the resulting buildings, and a lack of emphasis on distinctive user-centred design.

So why has technological innovation flourished so well in the automotive sector, while in housing it has seemed to stagnate?

Reasons may include a lack of customer choice and competition. The automotive market is fierce in terms of features and cost, and auto manufacturers have had to adapt their systems to survive. A manufacturer that doesn't compete ruthlessly on quality, feature content or price will quickly go out of business.

Better design has been central to this effort. Car companies invest millions to ensure cars are desirable. They must be evocative, thoughtfully ergonomic, beautiful in form as well as function. Cars are emotive as well as functional and high tech, yet mainstream housing has never been marketed in quite the same way and its processes have never been under the same pressure to evolve.

Delivering exciting new concepts

To make better products more affordable, it is standard practice in the automotive world to try and maximise the amount of inter-vehicle commonality. This extends to the structural layout, with common chassis and structural components, to the powertrain and running gear, and to any parts that carry a high development or tooling cost, such as electronic switch-packs, wiring harnesses and data distribution systems.

This level of standardisation could have led to a conveyor belt of similar products and a huge reduction in user choice. But, by aspiring to great design, manufacturers have taken advantage of the platform approach to deliver exciting new concepts, embraced by the public at both ends of the price spectrum.

Forge Design, is a collective of experts in automotive design and concept design management. Our community has been involved in conceiving and designing the look and feel of vehicles ranging from modern city run-arounds to supercars. One such example that perfectly exhibits this platform approach is the new Bentley Continental (see concept pictured above). This car shares its MSB base platform with the Porsche Panamera, allowing both companies to minimise fixed costs while preserving the highest standards of premium feel, and bespoke variation in customer experience.

Visually, these cars do not look alike, indeed they are quite distinctive. Furthermore, the new range of Continentals reflect the current emissions-conscious trend. They feature structural components made from exotic high-strength steels to reinforce an aluminium body. This delivers a considerable weight saving, improving performance and reducing fuel consumption. The increased cost of these expensive materials is only sustainable using platforms. Could the same be true for housing?

The housing challenge

We take it for granted that new cars will be well designed, that they will arrive on time and that when they do, they will not leak. Is the same true of the home buying experience?

There could be massive potential benefits if housing developers were to embrace the platform design approach at scale. But they would need architects, designers, developers and engineers to work together to consider cost models, life-long user requirements, and longer-term trends.

For our neighbourhoods of the future, the platform approach offers new opportunities for customised housing. Designers should lead the way, focusing on standardising where there is a high investment cost, geometric similarity or cross-system integration. Potential areas for interventions are not just sub-assemblies such as walls, floors or structural elements, but also wiring layouts, network infrastructure and customer interfaces.

Interesting parallels can be drawn between housing and automotive design. Fundamentally, both involve structural and legislative constraints which impose costs on the designer or manufacturer. These are areas with repetitive issues, where it is worth spending money to standardise.

Both industries also involve areas of high-customisation. In housing, this is particularly the case for ageing populations whose needs become more specific as they get older.

Using a platform-type approach and unleashing the power of good design, must surely be the best answer to these shared challenges.”

To read Kieran's article in full, together with other expert perspectives, visit Neighbourhoods of the Future 2019 and find out how you too could get involved.

Image: Bentley concept by Forge Design.