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Published in The Financial Times, 25/26 Feb 2003 p9.
Housing Minister Lord Rooker has announced a £200 million 'challenge fund' to tackle the crisis in social housing in the South East of England. This will enable at least 4000 affordable houses to be built, of which at least a quarter will be prefabricated. Endorsing prefabrication in offering housing swiftly without loss of design quality, he said that there "...needs to be a revolution in construction methods to reach the government's targets of 200,000 new homes in the South East. Traditional methods alone will not cope with what is required". He intended that the funding "help create a bigger market in the prefabricated construction sector, which needs economies of scale to be economically viable".
Right across London and in many UK metropolitan cities developers and local authorities are struggling to meet housing needs. London alone needs 500,000 new homes by 2016 - that's 33,000 new homes every year. In 1998 Sir John Egan acknowledged the need to find better and faster house building methods when he stated that factory-built housing was the future within the UK. Then, in May last year housing minister Lord Falconer brought this issue out on the table once again by declaring that new housebuilding techniques like prefabrication are the answer to providing new homes for those priced out of the housing market.
The need for rapid responses coupled with a willingness to achieve a wider range of spatial and physical options to meet the need of all purses have led architects and public sector clients to refocus on prefabricated or 'prefab' housing. Pre-fabrication means building with factory-made components which may be produced by different manufacturers to reduce the amount of work on the site. Work in the factory is deliberately increased to speed up construction and/or reduce cost and waste. Prefab housing was originally introduced after the Second World War, many on bombed sites, in a national plan intended as a stop-gap. Pre-fabricated houses quickly acquired a poor reputation in the 1940s because of several unsatisfactory designs, which caused 'prefab' to become a term of abuse that still lingers. However significant number of prefab estates still exist and are enjoyed by their loyal owners.
Housing associations like Peabody and Circle 33 are at the forefront of the new drive for prefabrication for affordable and social housing. They are destined to take on a much greater responsible in this area as stock transfers from local authorities gather pace, and are increasingly engaging first rate quality architects to design schemes.
Unfortunately progressive procurement and construction methods go against the grain of the UK construction industry. Notoriously conservative, it pays no more than lip service to pre-fabrication. Brick and block cavity construction is a primitive, but a tried and tested, and most immediately economic building method, and very resilient in the face of change, say architects and professors at the University of Sheffield Jeremy Till and Sarah Wigglesworth, who have designed and built their own house in London's Holloway. They are keen to see innovative and sustainable construction techniques enter the market: "Until the industry is required to change its ways, innovative housing technologies such as prefabrication, core service modules and modular timber systems are going to remain the expensive exception rather than the sensible rule".
Many younger architectural practices are committed to prefabricated housebuilding techniques. The most well-known example of their application in London is Cartright Pickard's Murray Grove social housing scheme in Hackney for the Peabody Trust. Like Raines Dairy, the Trust's second of this type in Stoke Newington, designed by architects Allford Hall Monaghan and Morris Dairy, it uses semi-modular steel construction. Such a technology allows for new types of house design previously restricted by standard construction methods. Combining long span timber construction with core service modules gives scope to develop room and building layouts which break with the cellular organisation imposed by loadbearing blockwork and short span methods. There are other methods of prefabrication. British architect Richard Lavington of Macreanor Lavington, one a handful of architects based in the Netherlands, is designing a scheme of 200 houses in Rotterdam, the largest project of its kind to date to use glued brickwork, which offers improved visual and structural qualities and can be prefabricated offsite in panels.
The architectural practice Piercy Conner takes a pragmatic view of prefabrication, which they prefer to call 'preassembly', a word free of past associations. They have created a speculative design for prototype compact 'Microflats'. The concept centres around a purpose-built, pre-fabricated utility pod for shower room and kitchen saving on construction costs. "The ideal", says director Stuart Piercy, "is not a total, preassembled design, but one in which such a customised 'pod' element is combined with a prefabricated façade. It's not only a great way to guarantee it gets built, but it makes the design fit into dense, irregular urban sites more easily". Piercy Conner now have a backer for Microflat, a database of hundreds of potential buyers (the aim is to build a scheme with 2-300 units), and are searching for affordable sites in London. Negotiations continue with supermarkets for extensions above outlets, the benefit being the residential nature of Microflat, which gives them planning gain.
Each Microflat is around two thirds the size of a conventional urban one bedroom flat. They're designed to fill a gap for occupation on inner city sites by key workers and young professionals within a limited salary bracket, who are currently unable to gain a foothold on the property ladder. The flat uses space efficiently, in a high dwelling density, but the advantages are a more enjoyable lifestyle with drastically reduced commuting times, affordability, and the scheme, when built, is bound to stimulate use of local businesses and facilities.
But can prefabricated housing really catch on? "There are lots of good ideas, but few factories", says Piercy. "We are not geared up as fabricators. Yorkon, the market leader in prefabricated housing can only produce 700 units a year". Not only do the factories need capital investment to speed expansion, but added to that, he points out that it is still very tricky to get mortgages and insurance for steel-clad house structures.
The UK house building industry contrasts starkly with the one in Japan, which treats the house like a consumer product. Japanese prefabricated houses produced by companies like Toyota and Mitsubishi cost up to a million pounds, and are assembled from up to 1400 components so buyers have a huge range of options to choose from. To introduce such a system tailored to individual needs here "...would need real investment", says Piercy. The publicity his practice's Microflat scheme has attracted has brought shoals of German tv crews to their office. Germany is "...miles ahead in terms of construction", he adds, and 15% of the country's dwellings are prefabricated designs, but these are relatively reserved in style. Meanwhile, Ikea is now manufacturing prefab wooden frame houses, 30 of which will be installed in Southampton's suburbs and made available on a shared ownership basis with Hyde Housing Association.
Ikea have already built 1000 houses in Sweden through their joint venture company Boklok. They plan to have the houses shipped from Sweden already completed and shipped in pods, ensuring rapid construction on site in five months from start of work. Boklok liken their production to what Ford did with the car industry, making houses on a production line. Southampton City Council believes Ikea's involvement could help overcome housebuyers' disdain of prefabrication.
The irony is that flexible production systems create most consumer products today, reflecting individual and collective desires for choice, but not housing, our most expensive and personal purchase. There is a deeply rooted perception that the public wants 'traditional houses'. But the emergence of the urban loft market, for instance, suggests that the market may not be so firmly rooted in tradition. The UK has the high quality design capacity. Is there a chance, therefore, that its housing industry is open to transformation on a par with the changes that have reinvented car manufacturing and food retailing?
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