Why the Greens' Proposal to Grow the Modular Housing Industry will Flop

Greens propose to grow modular housing industry for South West

The Greens today launched a plan to address the affordable housing crisis by creating a new local prefabricated housing industry in WA's South West. [link]

Don't get me wrong. I like the idea that the Greens proposed. In fact, I hope it will work out. But it will not. In theory it sounds like a really good plan, prefabrication and mass production of houses which looks the same. That was how Ford became the first prominent car manufacturer during the Industrial Revolution. Back then, a car was a luxury item, yes, even if you compare it with the car situation in Singapore right now. No one owned a car back then unless you were an elite but Henry Ford changed that by developing an assembly line capable of mass producing cars with the economy of scale such that many middle class Americans could afford to buy. The model worked so well because people were happy enough to accept driving cheap, affordable cars of the same model, same colour. Then the Japanese stepped in and the rest is history.

In theory, the idea of applying the same concept to produce good and affordable houses for the masses can work. In practice, Singapore was a proven model that the concept worked. In the 70s and 80s, the Housing Development Board (HDB) of Singapore completely revolutionized the way Singaporeans live since by providing affordable mass produced flats to the public. A campaign was a great success. Before the end of the first decade, HDB managed to clear most, if not all, the squatters in Singapore.

Ever since, it went downhill as far as housing affordability is being concerned. Many would point their fingers to market dynamics behind the dramatic spike in public housing prices. But Singaporeans seem to forget one thing. One of the reasons why HDB flats were cheap in the earlier days was because our flats were built from the same template. Look around you if you haven't noticed. The older flats in Bukit Batok looks the same as the older ones in Tampines. The older flats in Teck Whye looks the same as the older flats in Pasir Ris. Same goes for older flats in Clementi vs Ang Mo Kio. I believe you can name more.

Look at the BTO flats of today. No development looks the same. Though the layout of the flats are similar, no two different developments have the exact measurements, or very rare if any. No one will disagree that the less customization, the cheaper it is to produce. Allowing even the slightest of customization defeats the purpose of modular development in the first place. Today, not only we are not building flats from the same template anymore, we have developed the fetish of giving our flats an identity. Just take a look at our latest New Town in Punggol;

To make it worse, the fetish even spread to our old estates. Take a walk along Clementi Ave 4 from Clementi MRT station and keep looking to your left. In no time, you will spot a huge landmark shouting out, "CLEMENTI MEADOWS". I wonder how the residents of er.. Clementi Meadows feel. Better? Happier? I wonder if anyone noticed giving their flats an identity isn't free of charge be it BTO, old estates whatever. Is it because Singaporeans can no longer accept living in houses that look exactly the same as their friends? Even for a standard BTO HDB flat that has the exact flat model from the 2nd storey to the top level, you will never find a royal flush of flat structure after residents moved in. You will have found that walls have been altered, floor finishes already completed by HDB hacked and redone and other what not. This isn't North Korea, we say. Yeah, if we want to be so different from others, shut up and be prepared to pay the price.

So the idea of modular housing has been completed thrashed in Singapore but will it work in Western Australia? Not a chance. Just find me any friends who walk in to their building developer here, pick a ready-template and ask the builder to start work. No, customization is important. Walls shall be altered. Glass shall be extended. Table tops should be widen. Gardens should be reshaped. Wood shall turn into glass. Or gold. House shall stand on stilts. You ain't see nothing yet. After all the minor twisting and turning, they found themselves paying an extra 5 figure bill and lament that housing in Perth is no longer affordable. Will the Green's proposal to grow modular housing survive the first world mentality in Western Australia? Keep your change and don't even bother to take a bet with me.

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