GEORGE’S THOUGHTS ON A NEW ERA OF HOMEBUILDING
You’ll hear many different phrases, acronyms and ways of describing offsite construction. Offsite, modular, DFM (Design for Manufacture), OSM (Off Site Manufacturing), PBH (Precision Built Homes), FBH (Factory Built Housing). If I’m honest, these are all trendy new phrases the industry has generated to do everything they can to avoid using the words ‘Prefab’. Prefab or ‘prefabrication’ were the words used to describe many modular or panelled buildings that were built very quickly after the war and through to the 1970’s. Prefabrication was regarded as the cheap and easy way to get things built quickly. It was. That is exactly what it did. But, building standards weren’t good enough and so many modular or prefab buildings failed and they failed quickly. The cheap, quick-fix solution lacked in quality.
I was brought up in a modernist New Town in the North-East of England. It was the most brilliant, pioneering development for 60,000 people built in the 1960’s. So much amazing work was done there and to this day I’m incredibly proud to have been part of such a brave and bold development, but I have to say the buildings that did fail back then were the prefab structures. There were concrete panelled maisonette blocks that just didn’t work and I have many bad memories of portacabin style, classrooms in our school playground that were boiling in the summer and freezing in the winter. Single glazing, badly designed and built flat roofs and single-glazed rooms with virtually no thermal insulation in the walls didn’t do the prefab industry any favours. Leaky flat roofs, condensation streaming down the inside of windows and walls cold to the touch inside buildings gave prefab buildings a terrible image. Thankfully they were soon demolished, but buildings like these severely damaged the principles of prefabrication. And this is an important point. Prefab itself as an efficient, high quality, manufacturing process wasn’t actually the problem. It was the fact that the standard of the individual products used in the process and the way they were designed, specified, detailed, and put together simply weren’t good enough. Poor design, low-quality products and poor building standards were the problem, not the overall principles of prefab.
So, this blog is a celebration of Prefab! Why? Because we are at the beginning of a seismic shift in the home building industry. The beginning of the 21st century provides us with a fantastic opportunity to build homes in a very different and much better way. With the incredible developments in digital technology, the amazing research and development that goes into the performance of each individual building product, the improvements to the UK building regulations and the higher standards of building practices we have an opportunity to bring back prefab housing in the most brilliant way.
But, to do these we need an industry that begins to think differently. Manufacturing and factory processes are completely different to the conventional house building industry. Architects, planners, builders and many engineers are not trained to be ‘factory people’. As an architect I’ve worked on thousands of building sites, but I’ve never worked in a factory. And on the flip side many ‘factory people’ have never built a house!
So, we need to create an entirely new way of educating, training and establishing an environment where people can be inspired to design, engineer and manufacture factory built-homes. The benefits of building a home in a factory are obvious. So much of the inefficiency of the UK home building industry is caused by bad weather, so building indoors is an absolute winner. You could have a 24 hour factory with three 8-hour shifts continuously working in a high quality and safe manufacturing environment. We can also create a more diverse workforce. Those with disabilities really struggle to be accommodated on a conventional building site because of muddy conditions or restrictions for working at height. I can honestly say that I’ve personally never seen anyone in a wheelchair working on a building site. But, a safe and more easily accessible factory environment could open up so many opportunities for people of all abilities to be able to work in the home building industry. A more ‘clean-tech’ approach to home manufacturing may also open up the industry to so many more people who must be put-off by miserable, cold, wet and muddy building sites. In the perfect factory everything you need would be under one roof. All of your materials delivered by an efficient supply chain would be just where you need them and when. Production lines would be beautifully set up to cope with multiple house types. High quality, precision-made homes that have been quality checked to the highest standards before leaving the factory would be loaded onto lorries or trains and delivered to sites across the country. Regional manufacturing plants would build local homes for local people and create new jobs. Local colleges and universities would run innovative and inspiring new courses in Advanced Home Futures and Advanced Home Manufacturing creating a whole new generation of industry disrupting architects, designers, engineers, builders, factory workers, managers and financiers.
Research and development is the key to the success of Off-site homebuilding. There is no point in attempting to build something quicker and cheaper, but being sub-standard. We will simply be making the same mistakes of the past. We need to build better and we need to build homes that are truly beautiful. This will take the very best in design talent. Dyson spends £7m per week on research an development, the entire house building industry combined spends next to nothing on innovative design. In fact, most of the mass house building industry hardly ever employs an architect. Shocking!
So, DESIGN is absolutely critical. And I mean design in every sense of the word. Designing amazing digital software, designing innovative supply chains, designing efficient manufacturing processes, designing new systems and financial models, designing quality control checks etc etc...you get the picture. ‘Design’ for me is so much more than making something look nice!
But, we forgotten something. We’ve forgotten the most important part of the entire ‘home creation’ process. We’ve not even mentioned the people who would buy these homes. Home and architecture are nothing without people. How arrogant of us to become so absorbed in the product and the process of designing and building a home that we neglect the emotions, needs and well-being of those people who need a roof over their head. The current industry even struggles to use the word ‘home’. Builders, developers and even government departments refer to homes as ‘units’. This has to stop!
My Mam doesn’t care if a house has been built in a factory or not. All she wants is a decent affordable home. A safe, secure and stable place to raise a family. But, a more efficient design and build process could give my Mam the option of buying a better home, one where she can have more choice, one where she can order a home in a similar way to ordering a car so it can be personalised to her style and taste and where it can be delivered to site, fully complete in a matter of months rather than waiting years. And how good would it be if her new home was so beautifully manufactured that it doesn’t have a single fault the day she moved in, because the factory had dealt with every single issue before it left the building?
As more home building factories are built (and many are up and running today...very much in their infancy but they are there) and the volume of prefab homes increases then the manufacturing cost of each home will reduce. There is no doubt about that because even the most innovative factories out there are only scratching the surface of what is possible. But, if we think off-site manufacturing will solve the affordability crisis I’m afraid it won’t. Homes will only become more affordable if over-inflated land values fall, if housing supply overtakes demand, or if wages dramatically increase while house prices remain the same.
Factory-built homes give us an incredible opportunity to embrace the digital and clean-tech manufacturing age making a medieval and antiquated homebuilding industry more efficient, more professional and generally do so much better. Off-site has the opportunity to revolutionise the way we order, buy, design, procure, make, live-in and maintain 21st century homes. Prefab, as I love to call it, could be the home building revolution our industry need to change. We need to inspire the next generation to want to be part of it.
This post first appeared on the Mitsubishi Electric website in February 2019.