News – Absolutely prefab

They have never been popular in the UK, but are prefabs about to sprout, wonders Kevin McCloud

You may remember William Woollard on Tomorrow’s World in 1974 announcing how, by 2010, we would all drive cars pre-wired to arrive at their destinations, while we chatted on pre-programmed personal communicators just like the one Captain Kirk had. Then we would all go home to our prefabricated houses, to eat pre-cooked moon food.
Well, with four years to go, we’ve already got sat nav, mobile phones and Pop Tarts. But the prefab home? No chance. The vast majority of our houses are still built using techniques invented by the Assyrians and last refined by the Romans. We still glue slabs of baked earth together, then plaster them inside and out with more goo dug out of the ground. While standing in the rain. Preposterous, really.

A modern home needs to be a super-insulated, thermal machine, not a hut with a hole in the roof. It will be stuffed with all kinds of technology: heat pumps, photovoltaics, lighting and security systems, a wireless LAN, and the usual incomprehensible maze of plumbing and wiring — thousands of components from hundreds of suppliers. So why even think of slowly assembling such a complicated machine on site? It’s like trying to build a car in a field.

The last time anybody thought this was a stupid idea was after the second world war, when lots of the bombed-out homeless needed shelter quickly. Nearly 160,000 houses were prefabbed, mainly from asbestos-reinforced cement panels. Costing about £1,000 each and with no foundations, these have been denigrated for 60 years as “sub-standard”, even though many still provide modest, comfy, albeit slightly dull homes.

But the stigma of post-war prefabs still lingers about the housing market like a bad smell. British developers resist off-site fabrication, as it’s called; it accounted for only 1% of the 160,000 new homes built last year, yet it is the norm in other civilised countries.

Half the Finnish population, for example, live in a house built in a factory. Their homes are warm, solid and not at all dull. We British, however, remain addicted to bricks and mortar. We like our homes to be solid, like Yorkshire pudding or the M25.

I blame the story of the three little pigs. That and the Great Fire of London. The diarist Samuel Pepys recounts how some of the first building regulations were introduced in 1666 to counter the possibility of such a disaster recurring. New houses had to be brick. At a stroke, the great tradition of oak-framed buildings received a 17th-century stigma from which it has never recovered.

It has done the prefab market no favours at all, because timber frames were the earliest commercial versions. In medieval Appenzell, in what is now Switzerland, peasants used to deviously construct their own “houses” from free, local timber — then dismantle and sell them on quickly before building another one. So everybody’s house took 30 years to build but nobody got hanged — or even taxed — for the capital offence of making money, a tradition which persists in Switzerland but not in Gordon Brown’s economy.

Timber-frame buildings were pegged together, so that they could be dismantled in the framing yard, then erected on site. Then dismantled and moved again a century later. The home of the late gardener Christopher Lloyd, Great Dixter in Northiam, was a hybrid, created in 1910 by his father and the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens from several buildings, including a great hall brought from Benenden.

You can buy modern versions of these great medieval buildings. They use identical joints and braces, and go up in a barn-raising, hair-raising five days. Firms such as Border Oak and Carpenter Oak sell oak-frame houses with crucks and ties and stitched collars. They are tailored and come with a bespoke invoice of several hundred thousand pounds, just for the frame.

But you’re buying a beautiful interior structure that will remain on show and a one-off piece of wooden architecture that will almost certainly outlive its concrete block equivalent. Sadly, the medieval method needs much puzzling and tabard-scratching before it meets modern building regulations.

The bumbling vernacular styles of Merrie England are as nothing compared to the blinding rationalism of Germany and Japan, where not only cars and houses but pets and pop music are made in factories.

There, the timber house stops being a wonky, curved frame made with bits of tree; it becomes a grid-post-and-beam system made from engineered timber such as Gluelam and Parallam and oriented strand board: wood, but not as we know it. You can buy a Platz-Haus or a Huf-Haus for the price of just the frame of an oak building — starting from about £300,000 for 1,800sq ft — and know it won’t twist out of shape.

I visited the Huf factory once. Trees go in one end, and a mile and a half later, a house pops out the other. Huffies come and put your house up for you in a week, sweep up after themselves, and make you tea, and you get a super-performing surprise house. It’s like buying a house from Willy Wonka.

Or you can go entirely contemporary and modular with Pad. This is fab prefab. You can bolt on (or for that matter I suppose, when you’re old, bolt off) rooms as you need them. Pad, which is based in London, sells a cubic three-bed, 1,076sq ft home for £100,000 (without a site), which, for proper architecture tailored to your land, isn’t bad. And how does its designer, Ashley Beighton, describe it? “It has the build quality of a German car and it’s delivered to site as a sealed, fully tested unit; spotless, perfect and ready to live in.” That’s what I want: a house that looks as though it’s built in the Ruhr Valley.

In case you thought there was still a class-conscious whiff about the prefab, take a look at the Retreat, designed by Buckley Gray Yeoman (£20,000 or so cheaper than a Pad) or the M-House (£135,000): two ultra-groovy, ultra-sustainable abodes that arrive on wheels. You might think of them as mobile homes or as Norman Foster Portakabins, but they look as cool as a pair of frozen cucumbers. And they can sit wherever you’ve got permission for a mobile home, which means a cheaper site to buy — so lower costs. I’ve consequently been looking for a single caravan berth for a year now.

Or why not a home made of recycled shipping containers from Urban Space Management? It is the company behind Container City, which turns shipping containers into homes. It installed Cove Park, a prefab artists’ retreat overlooking Loch Long on Scotland’s west coast, in three days.

But the most innovative build method around is the flatpack method. The giant cornflake-packet system that Ikea will almost certainly use for its mooted new house. No doubt that will have a Scandinavian name (the Dull Høuse?) and come with an 8ft allen key.

The experimental Osborne house, soon to be finished at the Building Research Establishment, uses giant, pre-insulated flatpack panels, as does the £60,000 house unveiled at the Building Centre in London, the winner of a contest launched by the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, in the quest for affordable housing. (It might cost £60,000 to build; it will be more like £200,000 to buy.) The luxurious Lazor Office Flatpak house from the US-based Empyrean, available here through Blackburn Barton, uses a similar system: the Americans invented flatpack in the 17th century. Designed by architect Charlie Lazor, the Flatpak uses laminated pre-made walls made of engineered timber and insulation, is comparatively cheap and quick (a 1,500sq ft model would cost £165,000-£202,500 plus building work and land) and looks like taking over the world.

A couple of other designs from Empyrean — the Deck House and the Acorn — are already springing up over Britain. There are 30-plus Acorns making up a holiday village in Gloucestershire. The Acorn may be a fine home, but is it architecture or a McMansion flown in from Cape Cod? I think the Deck design is the lesser of these two evils, but I can’t wait to see the Lazor Office Flatpak when it is finally built here. In a sense it is better to have no contextuality about the design at all, rather than it be a fake.

Still, I have nobody to blame but myself for the Deck catching on here. Ian and Jennifer McCallum have built a vast one — 2,800sq ft on an acre or so, for almost £600,000 — just outside Mere, in Wiltshire, after seeing one in an earlier series of Grand Designs.

“It is an uncompromising house,” admits Jennifer, 67. “We will need to think carefully about the landscaping.” The local planners didn’t worry, though: “They said it was a unique site capable of supporting a unique house.”

The couple hope to move in in a month’s time. Problems with local builders mean it’s taken a while to finish, but Empyrean met its side of the prefab deal: it was erected and watertight within six weeks of being shipped over from the US.

“Factory production makes things more efficient and gets around the problem of the shortage of skilled labourers,” says Neil Smith, group technical manager of the National House-Building Council.

The medieval Appenzellian probably built crusty log cabins, the predecessors of the modern “square” log systems prefabbed in Poland and Finland. John Cadney, a cabinet maker and woodworker, and his girlfriend, Marnie Moon, finished their four-bed family Erlund home in Kent last year. It’s vast and only cost £130,000 all in, with triple glazing and eco-insulation. The house came as a pile of interlocking lengths of wood. Thousands of them. But to someone like Cadney this was more of an opportunity than a challenge.

“Ever since I was a boy watching carpenters in India, I’ve always made wooden things,” he says. “It’s just growing in scale!” The trouble with these log houses — the trouble with a lot of prefab in general — is that it’s like buying anything from a shop. Get it home and it doesn’t quite look the same. Proper architecture responds to place as much as to people, and so the best prefabs are those that can either be architect-designed into their site and cleverly rewritten, or reclad to suit where they are.

Most of the luxury houses I’ve mentioned can be. But prefabrication is more than likely to deliver all our future housing. Mass housing. If we’re not careful we’re going to create more swathes of Noddy houses while trying to do the opposite. And all because we don’t understand how to imbue buildings with some local distinction and the meaning of place. Our geological range is diverse, and our buildings are historically just as diverse, and it’s a mistake to try and override that. It’s crucial to give a place architecture that looks as though it belongs where it is. That’s a way to give people pride in where they live.

I don’t want to live in a William Woollard blobby house of the future and eat moon food. I certainly don’t ever want to eat a Pop Tart. I want an Eccles cake in Eccles, and a tart in Bakewell