In London, a city where affordable housing options
are far and few between, the YMCA has stepped up to the plate with an innovative solution to a most formidable crisis.
After three years in development, YMCA London South West and venerable British starchitect Richard Rogers have launched the Y: Cube Housing
initiative, a scheme that involves "clusters" of 20 to 40 prefabricated housing units that are stacked on top of or placed next to each on unused brownfield sites owned or leased by local charities or housing authorities.
Measuring a compact 280-square-feet, the modular units are self-contained and single-occupancy set-ups, geared as fully-equipped “starter” apartments for young people who are transitioning out of YMCA residences and other temporary housing solutions or who are otherwise struggling to cough up the funds to secure exorbitantly priced private housing. Essentially, they're a confidence-boosting, money-saving stepping stone between living at the Y and a private flat.
The prototype Y:Cube
unit was unveiled last week at the Wimbledon YMCA with the first Y:Cube Housing cluster set to open to qualified renters later this year in the borough of Merton.
Andy Redfearn, director of Housing and Development at YMCA LSW, does a solid job
of describing the mission behind the scheme:
As the largest provider of supported accommodation for young people in the country, YMCA is increasingly seeing young people struggling to afford the costs of private rent. Even for a young person in employment, a combination of low wages and high rents can quickly see them priced out of the market. We constantly see young people thrive and gain independence within our hostel accommodation, only to be left with no options when it comes to the time for them to move on.
We believe Y:Cube presents a significant opportunity to deliver genuinely affordable housing to meet the increasing housing demand in London that is not only affordable to rent but with the added effect of low utility bills. The demand for affordable housing is significantly outstripping supply and the city desperately needs to dins a solution which can enable young people to secure a place to call their own, while working and saving for a deposit and their next step towards independent living.
As for the Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners
-designed units themselves, they cost about £30,000 ($50,000) to produce at a factory in Derbyshire using a flat-pack
timber framing system called Insulshell
. Oliver Wainwright of The Guardian describes
the prototype Y:Cube Housing unit in Wimbledon, with its “simple pitched roof and jolly red garb,” as resembling a “giant Monopoly hotel."
Architect Ivan Harbor explains the speedy (they units take about 2 months to construct and a week to install) and inexpensive (about 40 percent less than a traditional stick-built home) prefab assembly process as being a “high-tech, low-tech approach.” He tells The Guardian: “It’s about a different attitude to construction, rather than revolutionary design."
Thanks to the precision construction process that involves high amounts of insulation, the Y:Cube units are remarkably energy-efficient and cost very little to heat. They were designed by RSH + P to achieve Level 4 in the UK's six-tier Code for Sustainable Homes building standard — roughly equivalent to LEED Gold in the U.S. The homes are also “plug and play,” meaning that they’re outfitted to be quickly and easily hooked up to utilities once installed at the site.
So then, who is paying for this all?
Thirty percent of the rental income is retained to cover management and maintenance costs and remaineder [sic] is used to pay off the capital finance. Where sites are leased at the end of the lease period the accommodation will be removed and relocated onto another site. The construction costs and professional fees are low enough for a scheme to clear all captial [sic] finance within 10 years.
Andy Redfearn elaborates on a YMCA LSW blog post:
Each scheme is individual financed and funding may come from a housing provider’s reserves, bank finance, or loans and grants from charitable trusts and foundations. Crucially, the construction system delivers incredible performance at a significantly reduced cost compared to other forms of construction. The partnership with Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners means we can design and build good quality and designed schemes across the country.
Thus far, the prototype Y:Cube has been getting rave reviews. Kieran Kurup, a former YMCA resident who aided in the development of Y:Cube Housing, tells The Guardian: “It’s amazing inside, so much bigger than you expect, and it’s fitted out like a show home from some Earls Court convention. Having your own front door, and your own bathroom and kitchen, is going to be a great morale booster for people used to the hostel lifestyle.”
And on the topic of morale, 22-year-old Kurup really drives the point home at the YMCA LSW blog: “I believe Y:Cube Housing can help rebuild our generation’s hopes and morale, since it gives young people with few resources something we don’t see much of these days, namely hope; hope for a place to call our own, hope for independence; hope for a better future."
It's also worth noting that while YMCA facilities in North America have largely — but not completely — done away with dormitories and morphed into multi-faceted athletic clubs over the past several decades, a majority of YMCAs in the U.K. remain true to the global youth organization's mission of providing temporary shelter and support services to vulnerable, homeless, and "new to the city" young people. Opened in 1874, the London South West branch — formerly the Kingston & Wimbledon YMCA — is one of the largest YMCAs in Europe.