With a requirement for 4.4 million homes to be built in the next 10 years and Egan's emphasis on modern construction methods, the 'prefabricated house' is high on government and house-builders' agendas. But not architects'.
Colin Davies' provocative book explores why they don't engage successfully (if at all) with prefabrication and housing and urges them to get involved.
But is that the answer?
Not if the evidence in this book is anything to go by.
Davies weaves the story of the prefabricated house through history, theory and practice, comparing architectural and construction-industry responses, and for architects it's an embarrassing read. Nearly all 'architectural' attempts at prefabricated houses have been a commercial failure - Buckminster Fuller, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright et al produced canonic examples, but had no impact on the housing market. They had a huge influence on architects, however, and their impact can be seen in the (perversely hand-crafted) machine aesthetic of the British High-Tech style. This leads Davies to the unpalatable crux of the matter: the relationship between architecture and style.
Housing has always been serially produced, through the repetitive use of the vernacular, pattern books and standardised elements, and it provides a functional need while forming our basic urban fabric. The popular ideal of the house, so we are told, is 'traditional', but architects have other ideas.
Architects don't 'do' the ordinary, they do Architecture with a capital A. But housing is anonymous, replicated and generic; its authorship is shared with the resident, builder and designer. Such anonymity conflicts with the view of the architect as the genius who constantly pushes architectural boundaries with one-off, site-specific projects.
The style issue also relates to the construction process:
the housing industry separates construction technique and applied style - in its view, the two aren't linked. Architects, however, have a problem with companies such as Ultraframe (conservatories) and Ohno (mass-customised houses), for although they use the most advanced production techniques, their products are traditionally styled.
Architects' concern is not just to do with a lack of architectural integrity but because the products do not conform to their idea of what is 'new'. When architects do get involved with prefabrication, they tend to concentrate on styling, rather than influencing the process. The power of the industry is in the development of the construction process, the heart, not the surface of the matter, and while architects are often employed to resolve high-density and urban design issues, they are all but invisible in the actual house product.
While this might be a stereotypical view, Davies' argument is convincing.
No one in architecture would dispute that architects should have more involvement with the basic fabric of our day-to-day lives, but they have to be embedded in the process, improving it from within, not standing outside, aloof. This demands a major shift in the architectural establishment (schools of architecture, professional institutes, architectural media), where the idea of the star architect predominates and where the profession is promoted solely as a service, not a producer, and so one wonders if it is realistic. But history suggests it is feasible:
Palladio, for example, had no such qualms about producing pattern-book designs.
The Prefabricated House doesn't provide any answers, but it certainly asks the right questions, and they don't just relate to prefabrication and housing, they concern the profession as a whole. This is an excellent book and a definite must-read.
Sarah Jackson is a design review advisor with CABE