At a time hand-made objects and products are seen as somewhat quaint and praised as being artisan, it is perhaps unusual that we are still making so many of our buildings by hand. When prefabrication offers reduced building times, cost benefits, enhanced monitoring of quality, efficiencies in material use and other environmental benefits, as well as precision in creating components and a host of other advantages, hand-building may seem something of an anachronism.
Off-site building is not new. There is evidence that the Romans were using prefab techniques as early as AD43 to help build forts quickly as they asserted their newly achieved hold over Britain.
Over the years, unusual buildings called for innovative techniques. Crystal Palace, which housed London’s Great Exhibition, was completed in less than six months and then dismantled and relocated. Prefabricated iron used by Gustav Eiffel in his “temporary” tower has made it one of the most recognisable structures in the world.
Prefabricated housing is the norm, not the exception in the cold countries that nestle up to the Arctic zones. The building season is short there with only a few months of the year being suitable for outdoor work.
Sweden, the home of flat-pack, is a global leader in prefabrication with an estimated 84 per cent of buildings being produced off-site. For example, Lindbacks, a 90-year-old company, uses a process called “screen to machine”. Wood is fed into giant machines and a wall is produced every 17 minutes, including windows and insulation. The company produces apartments, student housing and aged-care buildings at the rate of 20 units a week.
In the UK, pre-fab is estimated to be less than six per cent of the total construction now, but the technique was widespread as a response to housing shortages after both world wars. More than 156,000 were erected between 1945 and 1948. In Liverpool, the world’s first pre-fabricated apartment blocks were built in 1905 and the idea became popular in Eastern Europe.
In Germany, about nine per cent of new residential building permits are for factory-built structures, but it’s quite possible that, in Australia and the UK, Germany is perceived to be a bigger player in the residential market thanks to the impact of a Grand Designs episode showing the construction of a building called the Huf Haus
This was residential pre-fabrication at its uber finest. The 100-year-old company turned up on time, unpacked and started building. Trades were co-ordinated, windows were inserted, builders worked with perfect timing and exquisite precision. Within weeks, a large and contemporary, perfectly constructed, energy efficient and very attractive home had evolved to completion in Surrey.
A larger Huf Haus, also in Surrey, is now on the market for GBP 5 million.
Portugal is producing sleek and elegant prefab homes. Architects are praising MIMA, a company producing sophisticated homes with clean lines that are marketed as “costing the same as a mid-range car”. Japan is a seasoned player in pre-fabricated housing with around 13 per cent of the construction being done this way. The US has a healthy industry ranging from micro-homes to large family homes. Modular multi-residential projects are rare but increasing.
However, does any of this compare with the family house in China that was said to be produced by a construction 3D printer in three hours, or the Shanghai company that claimed to produce 10 houses in 24 hours? ■