Let’s not beat around the bush. Let’s get straight to the point. There has been an awful lot of interest in prefabrication house building in recent years, but not much has come out of it.
“Prefabrication is the practice of assembling components of a structure in a factory or other manufacturing site, and transporting complete assemblies or sub-assemblies to the construction site where the structure is to be located.”
The ancient Romans shipped pre-cut stone columns, pediments, and other architectural elements to their colonies in North Africa, where the numbered parts were reassembled into temples. The idea took on a new impetus with the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution. Modernist architects of the last century put the prefabricated house at the centre of their project to make a new world from the products of industry. Architectural history has recorded the results with admiration but underneath it is a sad story. Architect-designed prefabricated houses were mostly commercial and industrial failures.
Architects were good at designing prototypes, but bad at following through with volume production. That doesn’t mean that there were no successful mass-produced houses; there were. The American mobile home, for example, was a phenomenal success. But it didn’t count as architecture and it has therefore been excluded from architectural history.
Traditional architectural practice is based on service to an individual client and care for an individual site. But what if the client is an impersonal market sector and the building must be adaptable to any site? Architects like to claim authorship of the buildings they design, but what if a building is developed and refined through various versions by production engineers and market analysts? Who is the author then?
Developing sustainable homes poses a difficult challenge in this regard. However, if architects want to exert a real influence on the built environment, then they must be prepared to change and learn from areas of the building industry that they have traditionally shunned, from pattern-book houses to modular hotels, from Portakabins to park homes.
Architecture also furnishes many metaphors for stability and permanence: ‘foundation’, cornerstone’, ‘structure’, ‘concrete’. These linguistic associations are among the sources of architecture’s prestige. However, Prefabrication undermines the traditional values of architecture, but at the same time cannot be ignored as millions of affordable homes are still required to meet growing demand. There is also increasing pressure to further improve efficiency and sustainability performance during construction and throughout the lifetime of the buildings.
YouCube Generic Sites, Volumetric Housing
Terrapin produces volumetric housing, responding to the government agenda for alternative production with product quality, less waste, fewer accidents, and better prediction. It produces prefabricated housing, manufactured using off-site construction methods. As a UK provider of off site construction solutions, Terrapin has been in the business of permanent and temporary solutions for 60 years with its wide range of modular buildings.
Common advantages of prefabricated offsite construction
- Preparation of a prototype
- Preparation of the site while the building is done elsewhere in factory conditions
- Buildings are pre-engineered — each exactly the same, so can be adapted for ease of tiling
etc (this is important in terms of minimising waste)
- Buildings exceed requirements on sound and thermal insulation levels
- Rigidity and discipline of development, but can be combined with more traditional building
methods for areas beyond the scope of modular building techniques
- Clean, quiet building site
- Reduction of health and safety dangers by moving construction into a controlled
environment inside a factory
- Mass production is cost effective
- Flexibility in the materials used for the facing of the building
- Reduced construction time — onsite times reduced by 20% in this project (and this can be
- Predictable quality
Future of Volumetric Housing
- Research alternative core options to reduce costs
- Look at possibilities for factory fitting of external cladding
- Need more investment for research and development — Terrapin is only a small company,
and other housing associations are interested in similar schemes
This article has no easy answers, but it asks the right questions. If you’re an architect, architectural student, connected with the building industry or a general reader let us know your thoughts.