UK could lead world in prefabs ‘inside a decade’

Monday 12 November 2018

Town House © Jack Hobhouse

Prefab construction has to offer something tangible, real, and better than conventional construction methods if the term is to be effectively ‘rehabilitated’. But the UK is making great strides in the technology and could be the world’s leader in off-site inside the next decade.

Those were just two of the key messages to emerge from Factory-made Housing: learning from post-war ‘prefab’, a breakfast talk held at NLA.

NLA chairman Peter Murray introduced the session by saying that NLA is trying to restore the word ‘prefab’ as it covers a lot of what modern methods of construction is all about.

Certainly, for Hazel Rounding, director of offsite architects of the year for 2018 Shed KM, the practice has developed a series of different prefab solutions for different scenarios and locations, with a mansion house typology its latest. ‘From our clients’ point of view our brief was ‘let’s have an answer to the box bashers’, she said. ‘Let’s find a different solution to family housing on a wider scale.’

And for Sonia Zhuravlyova, journalist and editor and author of ‘Prefabs’, their historical context proved that governments turned to them as a solution to crises of supply in wartime, when one house emerged from aircraft factories every 12 minutes. Many were intended as stop-gaps but had survived, even if some had problems of heating and cooling.

But not even the Ronan Point disaster, where an explosion on the 18th floor of the tower block led to its collapse in 1968 killed off prefab in this country, said Dickon Robinson of RIBA Futures. The history of prefabrication is one of enormous popularity, he said, the 159,000 of post-war prefabs that were built having been loved because they provided people with something they didn’t have. ‘People forget how appalling housing conditions were at the time of World War II’, he said, referring to their lack of central heating and their outside loos. ‘Prefabs gave people something perhaps they didn’t know they wanted but certainly something much better than they were used to. And that’s the real challenge for prefab. It’s actually got to offer something more than conventional construction.’ 

Levitt Bernstein director Jo McCafferty agreed, saying that her practice is also looking at the use of modular with existing housing, but that it takes working closely with a volumetric contractor to focus on quality of design. ‘It’s got to be about that’, she said. ‘It has to be about the quality of the homes you’re delivering and not about the numbers and the speed. It has to be about that extra special thing.’

Pocket Living CEO Marc Vlessing said that modular tends to grow at moments of maximum market disruption, such as now, when there is a delivery system that has ‘completely clogged up’. Revolutions of thought had occurred, however; the first being that politicians now accept that volume housebuilding and housing associations will not get the numbers required. The second is that there are a whole range of ‘varietals’ that sit between social housing and unbridled capitalism that will need different kinds of policy and construction approaches. But although we have been much mor dependent on old fashioned forms of delivery because we have not made the investments, change is coming. ‘We’re now going to leap I think two or three generations of technology and I think we will be at the forefront of modular delivery in this country in the next 10 years’, said Vlessing. ‘We are now doing stuff which is way ahead of what the Germans and Americans are doing’.

Modular has proved fantastic for infill on council estates said Vlessing, principally because it is quick, dust -free and easily accessed, something which also makes it good for TfL sites where access is again often tight.

But the history of modular had almost nothing to teach the current programme of prefab, said Robinson. The elephant in the room, however, is over long term management and maintenance costs of other high density housing development for market sales feeding their way through service charges and making these forms of development unsustainable, he added. Those developing prefabs need to think more fundamentally about the long-term life of high density high rise housing and how you can design in the ability to deal with problems and ‘cut service charges down to size’ said Robinson.

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ
@davidntaylor

Part of NLA's recent Research Paper, Exhibiton and Events Programme on Factory-made Housing. 

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