The UK government is pouring billions into pre-fabricated architecture yet naysayers turn their nose up at the prospect of mass-produced homes.
Ingenious designers of the past saw the potential of industrial fabrication. It doesn’t matter that early experiments fell flat. To tackle contemporary challenges such as global warming and mass population changes, we must fall back in love with pre-fab.
In 1968, Finnish designer Matti Suuronen created a seductive manifesto for mass-produced housing – the Futuro House. Manufactured by window maker Polykem, this factory-made fibreglass and polyester micro-home sported a fold-down staircase and and Jetsons-style furnishings. It was quick to heat, able to perch on any terrain and could be dismantled into 16 components for relocation. It could even be strapped to a helicopter and flown between sites.
The Futuro began life as a commission for a versatile ski cabin, but Suuronen began to see is as part of growing movement of pre-fabricated deployable housing solutions which could provide shelter in any environment. The saucer-shaped dwelling lunged at the the shape of the future with space-age charisma.
However now, as Suuronen’s creation celebrates its 50th anniversary year, fewer than 70 Futuro Houses survive. It is a timely moment to critically reflect on the lost possibilities of pre-fab.
To tackle contemporary challenges, we must fall back in love with pre-fab
Politicians, for once, are taking a lead in the UK. In July, the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee published an uncompromising report calling for the widespread adoption of off-site manufacturing in architecture. Meanwhile, a core objective of the government’s £3 billion housebuilding fund is investment in “modern methods of construction”, a thinly-veiled euphemism for pre-fab.
Yet construction sector attitudes and public perceptions remain stubbornly ambivalent, partly due to pre-fab’s troubled history.
In the early 1960s, Conservative housing minister Keith Joseph made a remarkable pledge: to build 400,000 council houses a year (today the public sector manages just 3,280 a year). To meet this astoundingly ambitious volume, Joseph turned to the new technology of pre-fab system-building. Houses and flats were rapidly commissioned utilising concrete panels cast in factories and assembled on site in huge numbers, but the initiative would turn disastrously sour.
Councils were incentivised with subsidies to build high-rise and outsource delivery to large private contractors, who it was only later discovered cut critical corners. Adam Curtis’ 1984 documentary The Great British Housing Disaster describes the criminal negligence found in numerous system-built blocks, with several-tonne panels attached with too few structural ties, or none at all.
Then in 1968, a gas explosion in Ronan Point, a system-built tower in east London, caused a structural collapse killing four people. Councils started knocking down the pre-fabricated homes they’d put up just years before.
The widespread failure of the system-building boom seeped into the reputation of pre-fabricated architecture at-large
The widespread failure of the system-building boom seeped into the reputation of pre-fabricated architecture at-large, tainting it with the worst resonances of inhumanity and danger. That reputation still lingers, but the construction sector itself is the biggest blockage to the wider potential of pre-fab.
Today, a standard CNC router can rapidly cut intricate shapes in 2.4-metre-long plywood sheets to a tolerance of 0.1 millimetres. Yet for a simple 2.5-metre- high domestic wall, the National House Building Council recommends a tolerance 80 times less accurate, of nearly a centimetre. This remarkable difference highlights the gulf of precision achievable in modern factories compared to contemporary construction.
Tonight you will plug your factory-built phone, with a circuit board made to nanometre exactitude, into a socket with a faceplate designed just to conceal the several-centimetres-wide, site-made messy crater in your wall where the mains electricity cable emerges. Sophisticated super-precise manufacturing touches every part of our lives, except the fabric of our homes.
In a 2014 BBC documentary, Richard Rogers recalled an early Team 4 project. During a site visit, he discovered the unscrupulous brick layers had substituted a damp-proof course for sheets of newspaper painted black. For Rogers, this dispiriting moment was emblematic of on-site construction: messy, unpredictable, prone to poor workmanship and frustrating delays. It began a life-long exploration of pre-fabrication which permeated the heady early days of high-tech and his later work.
Sophisticated super-precise manufacturing touches every part of our lives, except the fabric of our homes
Despite the success of the high-tech movement and astounding innovations in manufacturing technology since, most buildings, especially domestic, are still made and renovated with curiously antiquated imprecise techniques. Paint, plaster, mortar and grout continue to dominate construction sites despite their reliance on skills in dwindling supply and their creation of vast amounts of waste.
The construction sector generates 59 per cent of all UK waste: 120 million tonnes. This shocking situation is partly due to the reliance on wet trades, which can only be adapted with destructive processes. Bricks, tiles and and fittings are rendered redundant simply because they have to be violently torn out during a demolition or refurbishment. Modular systems, off-site manufacture and universal construction standards could radically reduce waste and facilitate the expressive adaptation of buildings.
What if houses were designed like bicycles? Bikes come in a vast array of styles and specs. They can be easily and expressively customised. Brand new accessories are compatible with old frames. Cheap parts marry with expensive ones. You can buy a factory-made fibreglass racer from Japan or a hand-made British aluminium fixie and be confident that both will take the same M5 bolts for your water-bottle holder.
Bikes are a triumph of industry standards, enabling mass and craft production to speak a single manufacturing language.
There are some companies that are on the right track. In Germany, Huf Haus produces custom houses using extensive factory production (albeit still assembled on site). In Japan, back in 2002, Toyota experimented with mass-producing 3,500 homes from a factory in Kasugai. Even IKEA has got in on the act – its flat-pack refugee shelter is an impressive example of prefab architecture making strides to address profound needs, although it is a long way from contributing to the broader challenge of contemporary construction.
James Woudhuysen, author of Why is Construction so Backward?, argues a solution could be to decouple planning permission from sites and attach it instead to architectural types. If a building type could be given blanket planning permission, it would justify scales of R&D investment never before seen in architecture.
To get serious about architectural research improving buildings, we need to get serious about mass production
Around 1.7 million hours of research and development go into launching a new model of Japanese car. With production runs of a million, the R&D cost is just $425 per vehicle but every single buyer benefits from the full 1.7-million-hour design phase. A new house costs far more than a car, but enjoys a tiny fraction of the design time.
To get serious about architectural research improving buildings, we need to get serious about mass production.
The possibility of a radical rethinking of architectural manufacturing is a potential paradigm-shift in plain sight. Ambitious architects, contractors and campaigners should choke down outmoded disdain for mass production and lead the pre-fab conversation. Back to the Futuro!