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Opinion: A new age of prefab building

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Opinion: A new age of prefab building

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Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing

prefab prefab

Michael Burnside is a project leader for Stockport Homes, an ALMO with 11,500 properties. He project managed the largest renewable heat scheme of its kind in the UK. He is also a director for Bsquared Property Services, a Manchester-based property management company. He made the final five in last year’s 24housing Young Leaders award.

For most, prefabricated, or prefab buildings as most people know them; represent an age of mass house building, where structures looked flimsy and rooms felt cold.

The aftermath of the Second World War brought about a need for short term housing accommodation. The answer to the solution were homes that could be built at speed, satisfied a temporary demand and utilised what scarce resources were available at that time.

The legacy was and still is a wave of buildings with wafer thin walls cobbled together with single glazed windows; a perfect breeding ground for condensation, black mould and if you were lucky enough, the odd wild mushroom.

My earliest memory of a prefab building sat on the edge of our primary school playground; that building we were repeatedly told not to kick the ball against in case it fell down. That might be a slight exaggeration on my part but the fact the building was not habitable for students spoke a thousand words. After all no parent including mine, wanted their little cherub sat in a classroom environment more suited to North Pole penguins and polar bears.

There is no doubt, the prefab building of old helped meet a housing shortage at that time but when you consider the design life was only ever anticipated to be 10 to 15 years, it’s astonishing that some of these buildings are still standing today. You might ask yourself why?

Well, year on year the UK Government in power has failed to meet targets on new housing supply and buildings that were designed for the short term have now become a permanent blotch on the landscape. Population levels have increased but new housing hasn’t grown to the levels needed. This was emphasised in the Barker report 2004.

Housing supply and the debate that surrounds it isn’t a new topic and the answers might seem obvious. Just build more surely? You’d think so yes but solutions don’t appear to be forthcoming. Setting aside funding, planning laws and land availability, all issues in their own right, I believe the way to increase housing supply is to revolutionise the way in which we build new homes. A new age of prefab building that eradicates the stigma of days gone by. Homes and buildings that meet the housing shortage, lower our carbon commitments and help reduce the welfare bill; by creating sustainable employment opportunities.

The UK Government and majority of house builders have yet to wake up and smell the coffee. Out-dated construction techniques remain the norm in this stagnant industry. Whilst over the years we have indeed seen an increased use of off-site construction (as prefab is now known), when you look at the UK’s efforts, when compared to the Japanese and Scandinavians, our international counterparts make us look like 1st generation minnows scratching at the surface.

What is being created across the continent in Japan is the house building equivalent of the Apple revolution in the mobile phone industry. We are talking about some of the most thermally efficient buildings known to man, where tabloid reports of rising fuel costs carry little significance. A home so warm that you can happily wear your Bermuda shorts every day and without the worry of your fuel bills making you bankrupt. Houses and buildings that can be ordered off the shelf and delivered to your door, as if you were doing your weekly online supermarket shop. Whilst the cost of purchasing such a building is much higher than your average grocery receipt, when put into context, this method of construction offers excellent value for money.

I am of course comparing this technique to the more traditional construction methods and whilst I’m hastening to say it, the age of brick and block house building is dying out. A massive skills gap in the sector and a wetter climate means this well served era of house building is struggling to evolve and adapt to current requirements. On the contrary off-site construction allows building components to be pieced together in a factory controlled environment free from adverse weather conditions. The semi-skilled nature of assembly means this type of construction offers a viable solution to reducing unemployment; creating jobs and tackling the ever growing skills deficit.

Fans of Channel 4’s hit show Grand Designs will recall the super-efficient Germans building a Huf haus in just 4 days. For many people this opened up the idea of off-site construction to the wider audience. Huf Haus is just one example of what can be achieved and with further investment into infrastructure the possibilities are endless.

As for anything new or transformed, it’s good to rebrand; it helps people to forget and promote a vision of something better. I relate this to the many urban regeneration projects that exist across the country. Ancoats (Manchester) an area local to me is a classic casing point. A once socially deprived area, close to the epicentre of the Manchester bomb (1996), has benefitted from huge investment in the years following the disaster. So much so, that “out-of-towners” now refer to it as New Islington; a vibrant area acting as a catalyst to further growth and investment in the neighbouring wards.

This is no different for prefab, off-site construction, modular building, whatever you wish to call it. The principles and cultures behind it inherently remain the same but technology has moved on and developed into a real solution for house building of the future. Mind-sets however need to change; we need to learn from the mistakes of the past but not let sentiment hold us back.

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