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Home made

Metal Works - In this issue of MetalWorks we look at a range of projects and initiatives that will become a new housing 'tradition', offering new options for design and construction methods

It could not be more clear that you need to think about the potential of how residential buildings are made at a very early design stage than by the two projects mentioned in Matthew Teague's leader, at Hengelo (pages 4-6) and Almere (pages 11-13) in the Netherlands.

In these two intriguing case studies, future occupants get the chance to be part of the design team for their homes. The buildings - one in hot-rolled sections, one modular - both provide a flexible framework within which different layouts can be implemented, and potentially changed in the future.

These ideas of user-participation in housing design are not new of course. They were particularly prevalent through the 1970s and '80s, but the main, then practicable, route to implementing the approach looked to be through self-build. In today's Dutch projects we have a model for normal building practice.

All this does not go as far as the likes of the housebuilder Toyota Home, in Japan.

In a country where prefabrication, mostly modular, produces more than 150,000 new homes a year, there is a level of turnover, and thus investment, that has enabled Toyota to implement showrooms and design services where people can choose a highly customised home; an upscale, whole-house version of the kitchen-planning services we are familiar with in the UK.

Yes, there are special circumstances in Japan, notably the preference for new-build over refurbishment and the very high cost of scarce buildable land, so that people will knock down one house and build another on the same site. This puts a premium on the speed of construction and the ability to build on constricted sites. Also significant is that it took an outsider to construction - car-maker Toyota - to see the opportunity and take the initiative. Shades of carman Egan. (Some Japanese prefabricators do come from within construction. ) And in the UK? In conversation with Ed Donald of Corus Living Solutions (pages 8-9), which itself has set up an initial design and production capability for 3,000 modular units per year, he says he wouldn't be surprised to find someone franchising Toyota House or similar in the UK sometime soon.

And so we see an emerging spread of offerings. Corus Living Solutions, seeking to build the sort of scale of Toyota, is starting cost-effectively with relatively standardised accommodation, such as student or hotel accommodation. In the UK, more widely, the Steel Homes Group (page 7) has been formed, bringing together a wide variety of prefabricators, from those producing components to those offering a turnkey housing service. Almere and Hengelo show approaches to custom housing across the market. Toyota in Japan is aiming, and delivering, very much toward the top of the market. As it says of itself, it is 'Building 21 st -century comfort and luxury into houses in Japan.' We have moved on from a world of basic boxes and expensive prototypes.

Light steel framing The growing take-up of metal cladding - from Colorcoat (page 10), for example - indicates a broadening view of what we mean by home-building and what are appropriate construction technologies for it. Underlying much of this change is the growth in light steel framing, whether for stick, panel or modular construction.

Factory production is making a difference here. As in the car industry, there is that somewhat paradoxical, deliberate deskilling of the labour force while investing in skills training - Corus Living Solutions has worked with nearby Deeside College to develop a training scheme as a Production Operative. The sophistication and the lessons for continuing improvement are embedded in the permanent asset, the production process. As in the car industry, the outcome is an increasingly sophisticated product.

It is notable at another Corus prefabrication centre, Framing Solutions, that the head of production engineering has been brought in from the car industry. Every action is under the microscope. In practice, assembling frames - as walls, roofs, floor cassettes - is relatively straightforward. Apart, that is, from the numerically controlled roll-former which works off CAD to shape, cut and drill individual members that make up panel kits.

The kits themselves could be assembled in sheds on buildings sites. Two reasons why they are not, are the production culture being developed in the factory, and particularly the evident thirst for feedback so that production can be tuned-up, simplified, with costs pared.

This approach of using R&D for profitability is one shared by housbuilder Redrow, with which Framing Solutions has a joint venture. A quarter of Redrow's annual output of around 4,000 dwellings now comprise light steel framed in panel form. Many contractors have dabbled over the years, but this is mainstream. Redrow started by using its own house types and has now adapted them to make best use of the Framing Solutions system - rationalising bracing and load paths, and therefore trimming cost. Westbury and Barratt are among others with their own systems.

As fabricators become part of the construction mainstream they are increasingly needing to deliver buildings, not just factory output. So there is a growth in hybrid construction, light steel panels and modules combined with conventional steel framing as appropriate, a trend that will only increase as developments become more mixed. Some fabricators will become contractors, offering turnkey framing for projects.

Construction is changing. We live in interesting times.

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