The Revival of Modular Prefabricated Housing

June 15, 2018 | Posted by Chris Kyriakides

Prefabricated and modular architecture in the UK is undergoing a revival, due in part to the current housing crisis. Many developers and architects are looking at ways to produce high quality and cost-effective solutions that can be built quickly.

In 2017, Dunn Architects was commissioned to conduct extensive research on the revival of modular construction. The purpose of our research was to achieve cost efficient, high quality solutions, in addition to speed and efficiency in how each unit can be built and delivered in the context of the current housing crisis. The final report was the beginning of a series of projects assigned to our practice.

Prefab isn’t new!

Prefabricated systems (prefab), use pre-planned components or modules to build efficient, high quality and economic units. Dimensional grids, high technical standards, lower costs and the repetition of components are essential to the viability of modular construction techniques.

Whilst there are historic examples of prefab buildings such as 17th century oak frame barns in England and 18th century Tatami houses in Japan, the 19th century industrial revolution marked the beginning of prefab structures as we perceive them today.

Above: AIROH House (Aircraft Industries Research Organisation on Housing) 1944-1947

Before the 1st World War, Britain was packaging and shipping buildings to the colonies in the form of churches, stores and homes. Between 1945 and 1951 to respond to the housing crisis left behind by the 2nd World War, the UK government built 157,000 temporary homes. In the 1950’s private companies started to invest in prefab housing and local authorities took over from the government. George Wimpey created a highly rationalised building operation with 11 house types and 27 building systems and built 100,000 homes up to 1955. This was 30% of local authority housing.

UK Prefab Prejudice

In the UK there has been considerable prejudice towards prefab housing due to its association with low cost/low quality council or rented property, particularly homes built after the war. Traditional architecture and on-site build methods are usually preferred. The owner occupier culture drives this desire, as 80% of British homes are just that. Financing a prefab home can also be difficult and the planning system often prefers traditional styles.

International prejudices not prevalent

In the USA 95% of homeowners do not use architects; their own contractor makes stick frame homes. Modern architecture can be purchased on the internet as prefab or flat pack homes.

In the Netherlands 80% of current housing stock has been built by the government and has only been possible due to the development and use of prefabricated, industrialised building component systems.

In Japan 90% of single family homes are prefabricated some 1.25 million homes per year. These are made from precast concrete, structural steel, timber framed, as well as light gauge steel and wooden light frame construction. Fully automated, robotic factories produce these homes that are highly engineered with detailed systems accounting for earth quakes. High-density building is systemic and zero emission houses are now produced with 25 years life spans. The traditional Tatami gridded mat is still used, offering flexible open plan living.

Above: Nakagin Capsule Tower was completed in only 30 days, Kisho Kurokawa – Tokyo Japan 1972

Modern Modular in the UK

Many people are happy to dismiss modular construction systems but there have been some widely acclaimed UK projects. Rogers Stirk Harbour has been at the forefront with the Oxley Woods development in Milton Keynes (2005-2007), the Ladywell development in Lewisham (2014-2016) and other like the Y:Cube (2013-2015) for YMCA London and “Homeshell” (2013) in the Royal Academy of Arts Courtyard.

Above: Rogers Stirk Harbour, Oxley Woods Development in Milton Keynes 2005-2007

Recently Legal and General acquired a factory and have teamed up with housing association RHP in an attempt to provide 3,000 homes per year. London developer Cube Haus commissioned high profile architects such as Adjaye Associates, Faye Tooggod, Skene Catling de la Pena and Carl Turner Architects to design affordable modular houses for awkward sites.

Dunn Architects are also working on exciting modular projects for student accommodation and working in partnership with councils and charities to develop housing for young adults with learning difficulties.

This current turn towards modular architecture signifies a new chapter in the long history of prefabricated architecture and points towards a shift in the way we think of design, manufacturing, building and living.

Like many other practices, Dunn Architects are working on the next generation of modular and prefabricated homes to help solve the UK housing crisis and are excited to work in this climate of change.