FABRICATING A NEW FUTURE
The National Audit Office (NAO) says prefab homes can save the world.
Well, it actually claims that Modern Methods of Construction (MMC) can slash on-site labour by almost three quarters and cut construction time by more than a half.
It sounds like the perfect answer for those waiting to build mammoth new housing developments around the Olympic zone and in the rest of the Thames Gateway area.
Especially as the long-awaited skills shortage is due any day? There are some risks, of course, and the NAO report, commissioned by the ODPM and the Housing Corporation, points to the 'higher-thanaverage' cost of such schemes.
However, the NAO argues that prices can be 'comparable' to conventional schemes, depending on the project, and building performance is 'at least as good'.
But who's listening?
Where are the queues of housebuilders hoping to roll out hundreds of off-site homes?
The big boys - both developers and construction giants - are reticent about off-site projects and have only been willing to stick tentative toes into the prefab pool.
Unfortunately for its supporters, without an economy of scale, the prospect of viable off-site production could remain a 'what might have been'.
'The government can talk and talk, but until suppliers and contractors are doing it, it is just empty rhetoric, ' says Andy von Bradsky, a director at PRP Architects.
The practice is currently developing a prototype modular apartment in London for Notting Hill Housing (pictured above) which will incorporate MMC elements.
It is not the first scheme the firm has designed with off-site construction methods in mind. Yet, as von Bradsky admits, the approach to MMC is fragmented and the practice has not been given the chance to concentrate on delivering a large volume of prefab homes.
According to von Bradsky, the issue is not the architectural innovations needed to carry off such schemes but the will to see them through on a mass scale.
He says: 'There is no end of ideas and you can have any number of competitions.
'What's important is how you get the industry to latch onto them and turn them into reality. MMC needs to move to the next level of implementation - that means the supplier and contractor.
'We have to stop experimenting and do it, be 100 per cent committed and do it for long periods, ' he adds.
Martin Wood, of Bryden Wood Associates, agrees.
About two thirds of the practice's work involves some off-site construction but the majority of those schemes are in the commercial field - such as fl exible office and factory projects - and not in the mass residential market.
'My perception is that we are waiting on the sidelines for the macro-politics to sort itself out. A muddy building site cannot be an efficient way of working, but we are helpless to do anything about it, ' he says.
'We feel frustrated trying to change a difficult, fragmented industry.'
Wood, a recent speaker on the subject of prefab at the Thames Gateway Forum, also feels that even if there was a widespread commitment to MMC, the country would not be in a position to handle it.
'The problem is that the MMC process is still a fledgling - it is still a cottage industry, ' says Wood. 'When you think about industrial processes you think about car plants and the reliability of supply in delivering 100 units a day.
'But MMC is still done on a batch basis - which is less reliable. The whole thing hasn't reached a critical mass.' On top of all these issues, there remains one bugbear that continues to outshadow the rest - design quality.
Whatever the NAO says about the speed and efficiency of MMC construction, there is still a widespread view that prefabs are ugly - based, perhaps, on the failure of mass housebuilding in the 1950s.
There is even a perception that architects are to blame - an argument supported by comments from a Housing Corporation chief last week ( ajplus 25.11.05).
Wood feels that this is unfair and that modern techniques of off-site construction can deliver both functionality and variation in looks and layout.
He suggests taking a more component-based approach to the MMC process. 'The fear of a Portakabin aesthetic just isn't necessary, ' he says. 'People are looking at the wrong scale by looking at the container on the back of a lorry.' 'But once you are down to the component scale, the external aesthetic is far more flexible.' And one by-product of the prefab debate could be a new off-site aesthetic. Wood concludes: 'The introduction of reinforced concrete at the start of the 20th century was seized on by the architectural profession and it radically changed architecture as we know it.
'We are going to be disappointed waiting for the next material revolution.
I believe the next revolution is in the construction industry.
It could effectively become a new movement.' Whether we will see much of this 'movement' remains unclear. From the sounds coming from the main players, the first major stage for a new generation of prefabs is unlikely to be the Thames Gateway.